The Chicago Bears are in full-blown rebuild mode along the offensive line and things are bound to get worse before they get better.
As a result, Jordan Mills, the club’s starting right tackle the past two seasons, was released yesterday.
“As I tell guys, it’s not personal,” head coach John Fox said today. “We liked other guys better.”
With that move, let the feng shui begin.
Two-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long will now slide to right tackle, where he’s never before played an NFL snap. Long practiced at right and left tackle during OTAs and worked at right tackle in practice again last week.
"At guard, things happen a lot quicker,” Long said. “On the snap of the ball, you're either beat or you've won right now. At tackle, you can see your death either happen really slowly or you can see success happen really slowly. There's a lot of space out there. But honestly, you're just trying to keep somebody away from Jay Cutler. At the end of the day, that's the assignment."
Failing to keep Cutler upright was the main reason Mills was released. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF) no other offensive tackle in the NFL allowed more QB hurries the past two years combined.
Long surely has the requisite athleticism and lateral movement to succeed at right tackle. In fact, he’s skilled enough to play left tackle down the line but with this type of position switch, growing pains should be expected. Long is very good but go back to film from his rookie year in 2013, he missed almost as many blocks as he made while learning his position. That will likely be the case for Long again as he acclimates to his new edge role.
“Any time they put me out there, I'm trying my best to focus in on my technique, to get my assignment and alignment correct,” said Long. “It's all about playing football, really, at the end of the day. I'm moving two feet if I'm going to move.”
With Long sliding outside, Vladimir Ducasse will serve as the starting right guard. A backup for four years with the Jets, Ducasse signed with the Vikings last season and started four games at right guard before being benched. He has good athleticism but Ducasse is a spotty player at best.
Will Montgomery, signed this off-season to replace Roberto Garza, will start at the pivot and his experience under offensive coordinator Adam Gase should help this group of rotating parts. And Matt Slauson, who is arguably the top all-around blocker on the team, returns to left guard after missing most of last season due to injury.
Yet left tackle Jermon Bushrod is dealing with a back injury and did not practice today. His injury is ongoing and, like all back injuries, could linger for quite some time.
“I'd like to stay away from the month vacations,” Fox said about Bushrod. “I think we'll manage him just like we do all players. We're just trying to get him to the game, trying to get him to the regular season and now it's here.”
Make no mistake, Bushrod’s back injury is serious and one that will likely affect him all season. So even if he’s healthy enough to play, don’t expect him to regain his Pro Bowl form.
And if Bushrod has to sit, then Charles Leno will protect Cutler’s blindside. For those who witnessed Leno’s horror show in the preseason – he allowed multiple sacks, multiple hits in the backfield and incurred multiple penalties – the prospect of him on the left edge is scary. The former seventh-round pick has a long way to go and is not ready for full-time snaps at the second most important position on offense.
Yet the Bears have no other options – other than sixth-round rookie Tayo Fabuluje, who does not have the agility to line up on the left side – so Leno will get the call if Bushrod struggles to get healthy.
And who knows, if Bushrod can’t get healthy and Leno can’t cut it, Long might eventually get moved to the left edge. And if all else fails, J’Marcus Webb could be acquired in a trade with Oakland.
In the NFL, success begins in the trenches. So while the Bears have talent at the skill positions, it will mean very little if the offensive line can’t protect the quarterback or open holes in the run game.
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.