The Bears’ offensive line wasn’t set up to succeed in 2022. Head coach Matt Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, and molder of beasts and offensive line coach Chris Morgan struggled to find their “best five” to enter the season.
They eventually settled on a “best three,” with Larry Borom and Riley Reiff taking turns at right tackle and Sam Mustipher filling in at center.
The Bears’ offensive line paved the way for one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks but struggled in pass protection. When the dust from 18 games settled, the Bears’ offensive line surrendered 167 pressures and 29 sacks, per Pro Football Focus. When you factor in every facet of pass protection (tight ends, running backs, scrambles, time to throw, etc.), Bears quarterback Justin Fields was sacked 55 times and faced pressure on 203 of 444 dropbacks.
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Some of that is on Fields. Some is on the Bears receivers’ inability to get open. But a lot of the fault lies at the feet of an offensive line that was unreliable in pass protection.
General manager Ryan Poles set out this offseason to ensure he put the best five in front of Fields from the jump in 2023.
Poles opened free agency by signing right guard Nate Davis from the Tennessee Titans. That addition meant Teven Jenkins, the Bears’ best offensive lineman in 2022, would shift from right guard to left guard, kicking left guard Cody Whitehair to center. The Bears filled the biggest hole on their offensive line in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, selecting right tackle Darnell Wright out of Tennessee with the No. 10 overall pick.
Just like that, the Bears had their best five before the calendar hit May.
LT: Braxton Jones
LG: Teven Jenkins
C: Cody Whitehair
RG: Nate Davis
RT: Darnell Wright
There’s no question the Bears’ offensive line got better this offseason. But while it’s a better unit on paper, it still has several questions that will define its effectiveness during the 2023 campaign.
DID THE OFFSEASON WORK PAY OFF?
Braxton Jones was put in an impossible position last season. Drafted in the fifth round out of Southern Utah, Jones was expected to be a developmental prospect who could work behind the scenes to better his body and technique in 2022.
That plan went out the window fast.
The Bears inserted Jones into the starting five during the final week of OTAs, and played every snap at left tackle in 2022. He had no time to work to get stronger to improve his anchor against the bull rush. He just had to battle with what he had coming out of Southern Utah.
Jones struggled out of the gate. He gave up four sacks and 20 pressures in the first six games. The sight of Fields receiving the snap and immediately spinning away from blindside pressure become commonplace.
But Jones improved as the year went along. He gave up just two sacks and 10 total pressures in the final six games.
He entered the offseason with a detailed plan to get bigger and stronger, hoping to prove to the Bears that he can be a foundational piece of this rebuild.
Jones returned to Halas Hall with every box on his offseason to-do list checked.
“His maturity really showed,” Morgan said of Jones’ offseason work. “Like, what he said he was going to do, he did. Over the break, he worked hard. We all saw a difference when he came back in the building, whether it was strength or whether it was bend. Getting away, taking a deep breath, and going to re-evaluate everything, you know how it is when you're a rookie. Things are kind of spinning.
“You get time to step away, decompress a little bit. Things slow down. You know what everything is supposed to look like. You know what I mean? You know what you're supposed to do. You know what's expected of you. And he's done a really nice job to this point.”
The Bears need Jones to go from a player that gave up 40 pressures (tied for 12th most) and seven sacks (tied for seventh most) to one who can consistently be relied on to secure Fields’ blindside.
If Jones’ offseason work pays off, the Bears could be set at left tackle for the foreseeable future. But if it’s more of the same this fall, the Bears will find themselves in the left tackle market next offseason, and Fields’ development likely will suffer as a result.
AVAILABILITY IS THE BEST ABILITY
After losing most of his rookie season to a back injury, Jenkins started Year 2 without a place in the starting five. As trade rumors swirled, Jenkins was the third-string right tackle and potentially on the training camp chopping block.
Then came the move to right guard.
Jenkins’ physicality and nastiness, two things this Bears regime prioritizes in offensive linemen, really popped on the interior.
Despite playing most of the season with a significant hip injury, he was undoubtedly the Bears’ best offensive lineman in 2022.
That hip injury and a subsequent neck issue eventually cost Jenkins most of the season's final month.
All in all, he played 576 total snaps and didn’t play more than seven snaps in a game after Week 13.
Jenkins wasn’t the best pass blocker last season, but only gave up two sacks and 12 total pressures. He needs to polish his technique at left guard, but his health will determine his success in 2023.
The Bears need Jenkins to be available. If he can’t stay on the field this fall, they’ll have to rely on Lucas Patrick to fill that hole, and their “best five” will quickly start to dissolve.
The last time Cody Whitehair played center was in 2020. The only centers Fields has worked with in his NFL career are Sam Mustipher, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens, and Lucas Patrick, who took a handful of snaps there before injuring his foot last season.
Whitehair says he feels comfortable moving back to center. The exchanges between him and Fields looked clean during OTAs and minicamp.
Per Pro Football Focus, Whitehair’s best work has come while at center. He earned Pro Bowl honors there in 2018.
Mustipher had chemistry with Fields but was a massive liability in the middle of the Bears’ offensive line. If Whitehair can give the Bears above-average play at the pivot, the line will be much better off this fall.
CONTRACT SEASON MIRAGE?
Nate Davis has always been a terrific run blocker, but he struggled mightily in pass protection until last season …
… when he was up for a new contract.
In 2020, Davis allowed 30 pressures and one sack while registering a PFF pass-blocking grade of 52.6. He followed that up in 2021 by giving up 33 pressures and five sacks for a PBG of 49.2.
Davis was much better in 2022, surrendering just 14 pressures and three sacks and receiving a grade of 66.8.
That was good enough for the Bears to reward him with a three-year, $30 million deal.
If the arrow on Davis’ pass protection keeps trending up, it will be money well spent. But if that 2022 improvement turns out to be fool’s gold, the Bears will have a big problem.
DEPTH? WHERE WE’RE GOING, WE HOPE WE DON’T NEED DEPTH!
Yes, the Bears’ starting five is much better on paper than last season.
The Bears believe Wright has an All-Pro ceiling and hope Jones will cement himself as a good left tackle this season.
Chicago’s “best five” are, honestly, pretty good.
But there’s not a lot behind them, and that almost certainly will be an issue at some point this fall.
Offensive linemen get banged up all the time. It’s rare for a team to play all 17 (or more) games with the same five offensive linemen.
The Bears have few options behind Jones, Jenkins, Whitehair, Davis, and Wright.
Davis' OTA absence highlighted the Bears' lack of offensive line depth. With Davis gone, second-year man Ja’Tyre Carter was thrust into action as the first-team right guard. A seventh-round pick out of Southern, Carter still needs a lot of work in the Chris Morgan lab before he can be relied on during Sunday action.
But he's one of the Bears' best backup options should Davis or Jenkins go down.
Currently, the Bears expect Patrick to be the backup left guard and center. He’ll probably be their best option as a backup right guard, too. Other than Patrick, the Bears have Carter and former first-round pick Alex Leatherwood as depth options on the interior. Dieter Eiselen also is a potential emergency body.
At tackle, Borom is the best option at swing tackle. But the previous regime drafted him, and it seems like he’s having difficulty transitioning to how this regime and scheme wants its tackles to operate.
If Borom doesn’t lock down the swing tackle role in camp, the Bears are looking at Kellen Diesch or Leatherwood as their best backup tackle options.
I’d imagine Poles will bring in one or two veteran free agents before the start of camp.
Going into the season with what amounts to one reliable reserve offensive lineman would be borderline negligent.
Poles has done good work to improve the offensive line this offseason. But the group still needs to answer many questions to prove it’s as good as it looks on paper.