The Chicago Bears went into 2015 off-season programs with the following starting offensive line: LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, C Will Montgomery, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills.
By season's end, the offensive line consisted as such: LT Charles Leno, LG Vladimir Ducasse, C Matt Slauson, RG Patrick Omameh, RT Kyle Long. And that was just the final O-line starting lineup, one of seven different front-five units the Bears deployed last year.
Of all those changes, the most substantial was Long's move from right guard to right tackle, which didn't happen until the week before the season started. It was a shortsighted decision by the new coaching staff to wait unitl the last minute to shift Long to the right edge, where he had never before played, as film review of the previous two seasons should have been enough evidence of Mills' ineptitude.
To no one's suprise, Long struggled in adjusting to his new position, particularly in pass protection. At guard in 2014, he gave up just 2 QB hits, 13 QB hurries and no sacks. At tackle in 2015, he allowed 3 QB hits, 28 QB hurries and 6 sacks.
Going from 0 sacks allowed to 6 sacks allowed is what happens when you wait until Week 1 of the regular season to shift a Pro Bowl guard to right tackle.
At the core of his struggles was a lack of technique. Long was slow in his kick step and played too far on his toes, causing him to lunge and miss far too often.
Yet Long is smart, dedicated and gifted athletically, which helped him develop at right tackle as the season progressed. Down the stretch, he began playing at a much higher level and even looked dominant at times in the final month of the season.
"I wouldn't call his season a failure by any stretch," head coach John Fox said late in the campaign. "Like any athlete at the pinnacle of his profession, you're going to have some days that are better than others, but I think he's performed at a really good level to be honest with you. Most if his [problems are] technical, kind of a comfort level with being at tackle, but I think he's one remarkably well to be honest with you."
GM Ryan Pace reiterated his pleasure with Long's development.
"I thought he moved [better] a little bit later in the process, which I think was a real testament to him, the teammate that he is. You know, because that wasn’t easy," Pace said at the end of the season. "I think that he got better as the season progressed with his technique and his hand placement, all those things. I thought he progressed. He got better. Of course, there’s growing pains when anybody switches to a new position. But we were proud of how he handled that and how he got [better] throughout the season.”
Long improved so much, he was actually named to his third straight Pro Bowl this year, replacing the injured Jason Peters.
It's worth debating how much being Howie Long's kid influenced his trip to Hawaii - particularly when Slauson was hands down the best blocker on the team last year - but at the end of the day, Long's resilience and desire to become a quality right tackle did not go unnoticed around the league.
But what about the future? Will the Bears keep him at right tackle or slide him back to right guard? Or will they make the bold move of shifting Long to the left edge?
Let's break down the options.
For two seasons, Long was one of the most dominant guards in the NFL. He used his immense strength and phone-booth quickness to overpower defenders at the point of attack, utlizing leverage and his lower-body explosiveness to maul as a run blocker. He was even better in pass protection, where he was nothing short of a brick wall.
The problem with Long at guard is that his skill set goes far beyond being "just" an interior blocker. I've covered the NFL for nine years and will soon enter my sixth season covering the Bears full-time, and I've never seen an offensive lineman as athletically gifted as Long.
At 6-6, 328 pounds, he's a massive human being, yet he moves like a tight end. His agility is off the charts, which allows him to transfer his power into crushing blocks, as well as mirror defenders in pass protection.
"He’s extremely athletic," said Pace, "so normally you’re putting your most athletic guys on the edges at tackle."
That makes a lot of sense, as Long has the skill set to be one of the best edge blockers in the NFL. With that in mind, it's highly unlikely Long will ever move back to guard in anything other than a worst-case scenario.
A lot of people thought the Bears had ruined Long by putting him on the right edge. Late in the season, he proved everyone wrong.
In reality, the coaching staff's inablity to properly evaluate Jordan Mills is what hampered Long through the first two-thirds of the regular season. Had they the foresight to move Long to right tackle at the beginning of OTAs, it's unlikely he would have struggled at all.
Go back and watch the film from Weeks 15-16 against the Buccaneers and Lions, during which Long played like an All-Pro. Those games showed his substantial improvement over the course of the season, as well as his potential going forward.
Long is huge and athletic, that much we've established. Going back to Pace's earlier comments, wouldn't it make sense to slide long to the left edge, where the most athletic offensive linemen on every roster typically reside?
Personally, I have no doubt about Long's ability to protect Jay Cutler's blindside. He got his feet wet as an edge blocker last season and now understands the nuances of the position. Shifting edges won't require nearly as much technical re-working as moving from guard to tackle.
Most NFL teams place their best edge rushers on the left side of the offensive line, so it only makes sense to put your best blocker in front of them, right?
Looking at the current roster, it's a no brainer: move Long to left tackle where the Bears can make full use of his top-tier skill set.
Yet Chicago's roster next season is going to be nearly unrecognizable from its predecessor. The Bears have nine draft picks and more than $60 million to spend in free agency. For a team that went 6-10, that type of flexibility could lead to near wholesale changes, which includes the offensive line.
A case can be made for three new starters along the offensive line, keeping only Slauson and Long. So where Long ends up next season may be dictated by the linemen Pace is able to land in free ageny and the draft.
For example, if the Bears are able to land Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Staley with the 11th overall pick in the draft, then Long would stay at right tackle. Or if they land Ryan Schraeder in free agency, one of the best pass-protecting right tackles in the league, then Long moves to the left edge.
And if Pace goes full bore in the draft and uses his first two picks on offensive tackles, then you slide Long back inside.
Long's positional flexibility is a luxury, not a burden. In essence, Pace can address any position(s) he wants this off-season, then use Long to fill in the gap.
My best guess is that Pace will attempt to sign or draft the club's long-term left tackle of the future and keep Long at right tackle.
No matter how it plays out, the decision of where to play Long must be made early in the process. If they again wait until Week 1 to move him to left tackle, then we'll have another year of growing pains to sit through.