Going into the 2016 NFL season, there are still some question marks surrounding the Chicago Bears.
Arguably one of the biggest is the offensive line, which has at least been addressed by the front office this past off-season.
Barring any injuries or roster moves, the Bears O-line will have five different starters in Week 1 of 2016 than it did in Week 1 of 2015. If projections are correct, the average age of the starters up front will be 25.
That means Kyle Long will take on the leadership role as the club's longest-tenured blocker.
"There are large voids to be filled," Long said during OTAs. "But this team has been built on horizontal leadership and we’ve done a great job bringing in the right people. I love the guys on this team. I don’t think that will be an issue, so I don’t really have to take on that much bigger of a role because of the guys that we have in our room. Everybody is kind of accountable themselves.”
After earning Pro Bowl berths as a guard in his first two NFL campaigns, Long opened the 2015 season as the starting right tackle against the Green Bay Packers. Right away he struggled with his assignments. It was tough to put the blame on Long, though, as he was moved to the position just a week before the season started.
While Long struggled through the first couple of contests, his play did improve as the season progressed but the clear solution was moving him back to his natural position at guard. That’s exactly what the Bears did this off-season.
Long is clearly the best lineman on Chicago's rosters and has shown that with three-straight Pro Bowl appearances in his career. Even with Long being the anchor of the line, he's only one player amongst a unit in which all five pieces must work effectively in unison on every snap.
In the 2015 season, the Bears offensive line as a unit struggled. There’s no secret to that.
They finished ranked 16th in Pro Football Focus’ end of season rankings, which was actually up seven spots from their midseason ranking of 23rd. While the run blocking was among the best in the league (4th overall), poor pass-protection for Jay Cutler hurt the Bears.
As any football fan knows, to be a successful offense it all starts up front.
The Bears ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in pass blocking in PFF’s rankings and had some below-average grades overall for individual players. Case in point: Long and left tackle Charles Leno combined for 50 QB hurries and 10 sacks allowed. When pocket edges fold, the passing attack can only go so far.
Matt Slauson, who was inexplicably released last month, was the highest-graded player on the offensive line last year, allowing just 2 sacks and 9 QB hurries in 1,104 snaps. Slauson has been the club's most consistent blocker the past three years, particularly in pass protection, but he's now in San Diego. The Bears will look to Hroniss Grasu and free-agent acquisition Manny Ramirez to fill that large void.
As a rookie Grasu struggled in both pass and run blocking situations. He made his first start in Week 5 after Will Montgomery was injured against the Oakland Raiders. He was graded at 40.2 by PFF, which was 32nd overall among centers in the NFL.
Being a rookie, Grasu was going to make mistakes but now the transition to full-time starter gets tougher. He struggled at the point of attack due to a perceived lack of size and strength last season, something which defenses will surely be looking to advantage this year. He reportedly packed on 15 pounds this off-season but it's unclear if that added girth will add more reliability to Grasu's game.
That’s why the Bears signed Ramirez, who played for John Fox in Denver, in case Grasu doesn't demonstrate more power at the pivot. That means the Bears will have a new starting center in Week 1 at Houston, no matter who wins the job this summer.
Former Cardinal Bobby Massie, who was signed the first week of free agency, will be slotted at right tackle next to Long.
While many consider Massie an upgrade over Long at the position, the former Arizona edge blocker had some issues last season in pass protection. Looking at the tape the 6-6, 316-pound Massie was beat a number of times off the edge, giving up 7 sacks and a whopping 39 QB hurries in 14 starts. With a quarterback like Jay Cutler, who hasn't played a 16-game season since 2009, giving up sacks could cost this team more than a game or two.
Massie's tape isn't all bad and there is some upside. He’s shown he can stand up and use his leverage against defensive linemen, which he did fairly consistently in the playoffs last year. The physical tackle was an anchor for one of the best offenses in the league in 2015 and excels as a run blocker.
At left tackle, the Bears liked what they saw out of Charles Leno during 13 starts in 2015, yet Leno was one of the worst graded tackles by PFF last season (53rd out of 76 qualifying players), earning a 39.7 overall mark.
Despite the poor grade, the Bears see something in Leno.
Last week, the team announced the release of 2015 sixth-round pick Tayo Fabuluje. While they replaced Fabuluje with veteran Nate Chandler, the lack of activity at left tackle in both free agency and the draft suggests John Fox and the coaching staff are comfortable with Leno Jr. starting the season.
Leno's role on the offensive line is big, as he’s got the task of protecting Cutler’s blindside and at times last season he performed that duty well. In a stretch of three weeks, Leno went up against pass rushers Aldon Smith, Tamba Hali, Dee Ford and Ziggy Ansah. He allowed just one sack, four quarterback hits and eight hurries combined in those three contests, which is solid.
It was one of the bright spots for the 24-year-old in just his second season with the Bears.
Perhaps the biggest question mark along the offensive line is at left guard. With Slauson gone, the Bears have attempted to fill that void via free agency and the draft.
They signed former Cardinals guard Ted Larsen in the off-season and then drafted Cody Whitehair out of Kansas State in the second round.
Drafting Whitehair that early suggests the Bears have a plan for him to be their left guard of the future. The tape on Whitehair shows he can keep composure and control of his body, as well as being efficient with his movements after the snap.
While Whitehair’s hands are a positive, his arm strength was one of the weaknesses listed in scouting reports. He gives up position to longer defenders, something on which he needs to improve.
Whitehair will compete for the starting job with the veteran Larsen, who was also a member of the Cardinals' No. 1 ranked offense in 2015. It will certainly be one of the best competitions in camp.
Bottom line: this is a unit with so many new parts, it's nearly impossible to predict how they'll fare in 2016. This is a young group with a lot of room for growth, yet whether or not they all take a step forward remains to be seen.
If they fail in that effort and struggle to build chemistry, particularly early in the season, the offense will sputter in unison.
A lot is riding on the success of Chicago's new-look front five to come together quickly and produce at a high level.