Caylor Arnold/USA Today

Is improving the offensive line a priority for the Chicago Bears this off-season?

The Bears offensive line was better than average in both pass protection and the run game last season, making it unlikely the front five will change much this off-season.

The Chicago Bears 2016 season was doomed by injuries. A league-high 19 players landed on Injured Reserve, resulting in a 3-13 record.

Injuries weren't the only reason for the lost campaign but they certainly played a big part.

Despite the franchise-worst record, general manager Ryan Pace still thinks this team has a bright future.

“We only won three games this year and it’s not just because of the injuries," Pace said during his year-end press conference. “So it starts there. From there, hey, we develop our needs, and then you determine, hey, you’ve got to have a really good feel for free agency and the draft, and where they’re strong in different areas.”

One of the areas that excelled, despite also being plagued by injuries, was the offensive line. In fact, it turned out to be one of the strongest units on the team when the season ended.

Chicago’s interior offensive line was one of the best in the league in 2016, despite Kyle Long missing eight games, and should be even better in 2017.

While they struggled on the outside at times, the unit overall was still one of the better ones in the league according to Pro Football Focus.

Chicago's offense had problems in the red zone all season long, due in large part to the rotating door at quarterback. Despite the carousel at quarterback, pass protection was consistent the entire year.

The Bears front five allowed just 28 total sacks, good for seventh-best in the NFL and just 10 more than the leader, Oakland.

When crunching the numbers, the Bears allowed a sack on just 5.01 percent of pass attempts on the year, which was eighth-best in the league.

The inconsistencies at quarterback, receiver and in play calling all led to a disappointing overall offensive effort in 2016 but the offensive line did its job, no matter who was in the starting lineup.

The injury bug hit the offensive line early when center Hroniss Grasu was ruled out for the year after suffering a torn ACL in August.

Grasu showed improvement during training camp, so it was considered a big blow at the time, but it may have been a blessing in disguise, as it gave rookie Cody Whitehair a shot at the pivot. He stepped right in and played very well from the start.

Whitehair graded out as one of the best centers in the league, according to PFF.

Chicago dealt with injuries to Pro Bowl guards Kyle Long (eight games missed) and Josh Sitton (four starts missed), yet the interior remained strong with Ted Larsen in the starting lineup. While the inside performed well, fixing the outside could be a priority for the Bears this off-season.

Bears offensive tackles Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr. combined to give up 73 pressures in 2016. The duo also committed 14 penalties.

The Bears didn't yield as many sacks due to coordinator Dowell Loggain's quick-pass attack but the pressures were coming mainly from the outside, which is concerning moving forward.

The Bears also don't have much depth at the tackle position behind Massie and Leno. Jr, who will soon hit free agency.

Massie was brought in from Arizona last off-season and had a rough start to the year at right tackle. He did improve as the season progressed and will likely be the team’s starter on the outside in 2017 barring an injury.

If there’s any chance of a fix on the outside this year it will likely be replacing Leno on the blind side, although even that seems unlikely.

This year’s draft class isn’t considered a strong one for tackles and the free agent class isn’t very good either. Chicago may have to resort to shuffling their O-line to fix the problem, particularly if Leno walks.

“Cody Whitehair is a flexible player, that is one of his best traits,” Pace said. “And Kyle is too. We’ll see how it shakes out but if [Grasu] is back playing healthy at a starting level, we'll get the best five on the field.”

Would the Bears really explore shuffling their offensive line and moving Long back out to tackle?

With Grasu returning this year and Long missing a lot of the off-season due to shoulder and ankle surgeries, it remains a possibility.

Long played tackle in the 2015 season, moving from guard to the edge just days before the season started. He struggled right off the bat and the experiment ended in 2016.

Pace is aware of Long's history at tackle and may be cautious to move him again.

“That would be a concern, moving him around, back and forth, and we have to be conscious of that,” Pace said. “Kyle’s coming off two injuries, so he’s going to miss a lot of time this off-season. So that’s on our minds, handling it the right way, reduce the situation where he’s getting moved around too much. Because he’s at his best when he’s focused on one position.”

If the Bears don’t make a move on the outside starter-wise this year, it’s not the worst thing. As pointed out, the pass protection was pretty good overall in 2016. Swing tackle is weak, so they may add some depth on the edge, but pass protection won't be a weakness if Massie and Leno remain starters.

Then there’s the run game.

The unit paved the way for Jordan Howard, who broke the franchise rookie rushing record in last year.

Howard is considered one of the key pieces in Chicago’s offense for the future, so getting a stable offensive line will be key.

But in terms of this upcoming off-season, it may not be the top priority. With so many other substantial needs on the roster, a better-than-average O-line from last year isn't going to see too many changes in 2017.


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