2014 Bears outlook: Offensive Line

2014 Bears outlook: Offensive Line
February 9, 2014, 3:15 pm
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This is the fifth in a series looking back at the Bears' 2013 season, by position. Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin is breaking down where each position group succeeded and failed this past season, where it needs to get better and how the personnel may look different next season after free agency.

Overview: Much of the 2013 offseason was about upgrading the offensive line after it became clear that the upsides of tackles Gabe Carimi and J’Marcus Webb proved overly optimistic. Along with that problem, the guard issues were not going to be solved by James Brown, Lance Louis, Chilo Rachal, Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams.

The priority free-agent signing was left tackle Jermon Bushrod, followed by left guard Matt Slauson less than three weeks later and reserve guard/tackle Eben Britton a couple of weeks after that. The organization invested the 20th pick of the first round in Kyle Long, and unheralded Jordan Mills was taken in the fifth round, eventually eliminating any role for Webb, who played his way off the roster through preseason.

[KIPER: Bears can’t wait to draft elite DL]

2013: The same five started every game and had taken every snap together before Mills went down early in the Green Bay game with a left-foot injury that required surgery. Mills struggled to one of the lowest grades of any tackle in the league, according to evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com, but the overall play of the group was a key step forward under offensive coordinator/line coach Aaron Kromer. Long was added to the Pro Bowl as an alternate after an injury to San Francisco’s Mike Iupati, the first position player since Brian Urlacher to reach the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

Coaches worked with quarterback Jay Cutler on on-time passing, reducing chances for sacks and helping the protection tie for fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL with 30. Matt Forte rushed for career-highs in yards (1,339) and touchdowns (nine), and 4.6 yards per carry, second-best in his six NFL seasons.

The improvements were apparent in not only what the line did, but also what it didn’t do. “Last year, we had 38 offensive-line penalties,” said GM Phil Emery. “This year, we had 16. To me, that is 22 [fewer] sacks. That is 22 [fewer] negative plays.”

[RELATED: If not Tillman, where do Bears finding starting CB?]

The offense made extensive use of No. 3 tackle Britton as a third tackle in a “heavy” package, and Britton filled in for Mills when the rookie suffered the foot injury vs. Green Bay.

Looking ahead: As with the receivers group, the foundation was put squarely in place last offseason. Only center Roberto Garza is older than 30, and he is expected to be re-signed for at least one more season. Britton and backup center Taylor Boggs also are sub-30. Upgrades can always be found but with the level of needs elsewhere, on defense, the work of Emery and his staff last offseason positioned the Bears this offseason with no dire needs on the offensive line.

[MORE: Where do the Bears rank in the NFC North heading into 2014?]

Slauson was re-signed for four years at the end of the season. Now he, Bushrod, Long and Mills all are signed for three more years, projecting to bring a stability in the foundation of the offense.

Strategies: If there is an immediate need it is in settling on a succession plan at center, where Garza was a team co-captain and an superb influence on rookies Long and Mills while anchoring entirely new casts to his right and left on the line. Garza is popular within the locker room and a de facto coach on the field and is a fit for another season at least.

Boggs, Brown, Britton and possibly veteran Jonathan Scott give the Bears a deep quiver of a depth chart. Britton has been a starter and may be difficult to retain if he receives an offer with a better chance at starting, although he will have the opportunity to push Mills for the No. 1 job at right tackle.

2014 Position Outlook Series

Part 1: Defensive Line 

Part 2: Quarterback

Part 3: Linebackers

Part 4: Receivers

Part 5: Offensive Line

Part 6: Defensive backs

Part 7: Running backs