In 2014, the Chicago Bears offense took a considerable step backward. After finishing 2013 with the second highest scoring offense and fifth best passing attack, the Bears fell to 21st in scoring and 15th in passing last year.
That drop off in production is stark and is attributed to a number of factors, not the least of which was an inconsistent offensive line.
The front five in 2013 allowed just 30 sacks, 4th fewest in the NFL, but gave up 41 sacks last season, which was 19th fewest in the league.
As a result, the Bears cut stalwart center Roberto Garza, signed two veteran offensive linemen in free agency and drafted two more blockers. The influx of new talent is going to create a lot of competition in training camp and could result in multiple new starters along the front five.
Let’s analyze in detail each of the offensive linemen the Bears are brining to training camp in Bourbonnais.
Long has been the story of the off-season. After earning two straight trips to the Pro Bowl as a guard, the new coaching staff practiced Long at both left and right tackle during off-season programs.
Both Long and head coach John Fox said the move was temporary due to injuries to the club’s starting tackles but one thing is for sure, he looked really good on the edges.
Long has the athleticism and movement skills to one day excel at tackle but unless injuries force the team’s hand, he’ll very likely stay at right guard for one more season.
In 2014, he did not allow a single sack, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), and gave up just two QB hits and 13 QB hurries. He was equally dominant in the run game working a zone-blocking system that perfectly fits his skill set.
Long is, by far, the most consistent player on this roster. The scary part is that he’s actually still a work in progress and has yet to fully reach his potential. His newfound positional versatility only further increases his importance in Chicago.
Slauson started at left guard for five games in 2014 before a torn pectoral ended his season. His healthy return this year will be a big boost for the offensive line.
In 2013, Slauson was the best offensive lineman on the team – even better than Long, who was named to the Pro Bowl. Slauson has good power at the point of attack and outstanding awareness in pass protection. He’s not the most athletic lineman but he’s savvy at the second level.
In addition, he’s taken on a new leadership role now that Garza is no longer with the team. If Slauson can stay off the injury report, the Bears will trot out on a weekly basis one of the top guard duos in the NFL.
Montgomery is a nine-year NFL veteran who signed a one-year deal with the Bears this off-season. He played under Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase in Denver last year, so his familiarity with the new system is a plus. He’s four years younger than Garza, whom he’ll replace in the starting lineup.
Montgomery is a seasoned veteran working with his fifth team. He’s an above-average run blocker and he’s stout in pass protection. As a starter the last four seasons, he’s never allowed more than two sacks.
The Bears drafted center Hroniss Grasu in the third round, so Montgomery is just a placeholder. Still, I expect Montgomery to emerge from training camp as the starter, which should benefit greatly Chicago’s offensive line.
Bushrod is a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle who had the worst season of his career in 2014. Per PFF, he gave up five sacks, nine QB hits and 31 QB hurries, all of which were Top 10 worst among offensive tackles.
That said, Bushrod was slowed considerably by knee and ankle injuries, which sapped him of his ability to move laterally.
Bushrod missed almost all of the off-season activities with an undisclosed injury, so health is a big concern for the 30-year-old. If the Bears are going to take a step forward on offense this year, Bushrod needs to get on the field, stay on the field and play like his former Pro Bowl self.
If he can’t do that, it could be his last season in Chicago, as the club could save more than $4 million in cap space by cutting him next year. The Bears have a lot invested in Bushrod – he signed the largest contract of any offensive lineman in franchise history – and the club needs him to perform at an elite level.
Mills has started at right tackle the past two years in Chicago, although the results have been less than ideal. In 2013 and 2014 combined, he gave up 93 QB hurries, per PFF.
Let that sink in for a second.
Mills has never shown the agility or quickness to play on an island and has struggled mightily against speed and power rushers alike. In addition, he’s been hampered by the lingering effects of a broken foot suffered in the 2013 season finale, which is still bothering him.
Mills has yet to practice with the team this off-season and it’s anyone’s guess when he’ll return. For his own sake, he had better be on the practice field at Bourbonnais or he may lose his starting gig.
With Mills and Bushrod absent this off-season, Leno has taken reps at both right and left tackle with the starters. Last year’s seventh-round selection, Leno looked decent on the left side but struggled at right tackle.
He still needs plenty of refinement but Leno has the look of a future NFL starter, potentially as a blindside protector. That won’t likely happen this season but if he shows well in camp and the preseason, he’ll easily emerge as the club’s primary swing tackle.
Due to various injuries and absences during OTAs and minicamps, Ducasse worked exclusively with the starting unit at both guard spots, although mainly on the right side.
Heading into camp, he appears to be the frontrunner for the swing guard position. That said, Ducasse is little more than mediocre and will need a strong preseason to retain that role.
In Minnesota last year he was benched after allowing four sacks in four starts. He was also wildly ineffective as a run blocker.
Ducasse will need to play much better than that in the preseason if he wants to earn his way onto the final 53-man roster.
The Bears used a third-round pick on Grasu, whom many felt was a second-round talent. A two-year starter for Oregon, he has the agility and movement skills to flourish in a zone-based system.
In addition, Grasu is a close friend and former teammate of Kyle Long, as the two played together for the Ducks. The chemistry between them is already built in.
The Bears are going to give Grasu a legitimate shot to beat out Montgomery for the starting center gig. If he excels in Bourbonnais, don’t be surprised if the rookie usurps the veteran.
In all likelihood, assuming both players stay healthy, Montgomery will emerge the starter, allowing Grasu to sit and learn for a season before taking over in 2016.
Ola signed with the Bears last year after two seasons in the CFL and, due to numerous injuries, started 12 games his rookie NFL season, both at guard and tackle.
Yet despite multiple injuries up front, Ola hasn’t taken a single rep with the starters this off-season. It appears at this point he’s the odd man out. If Ola wants to retain his roster spot, he’ll need a stellar training camp and preseason, as he’s yet to catch the eye of the coaches.
Groy earned a spot on the practice squad following camp last year and was called up to the active roster in Week 11. He then started the final three contests at left guard. According to PFF, he gave up one sack, one QB hit and five QB hurries in those three starts, which is a bit below average.
At 6-5, 320, Groy has the frame and power to be a weapon in the run game but he must develop consistency, both in technique and effort. There’s upside with Groy but he’ll need another great August if he’s going to earn another spot on the roster.
The Bears used a sixth-round pick on Tayo Fabuluje, who is absolutely mammoth (6-6, 353). He looked a little trimmed down during the first practice of rookie minicamp before leaving the field with an undisclosed injury. He did not practice with the club the remainder of the off-season.
If he can get healthy over the break and tears up training camp, there’s a chance he can scratch and claw his way onto the final 53, but if his injury lingers, he’ll be fighting for a spot on the practice squad.
Jason Weaver, Cameron Jefferson, Chad Hamilton, Conor Boffeli
These four youngsters, three of whom are undrafted free agents, will round out the training camp roster. Each will be vying for a place on the practice squad.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.