Bears Camping Out ’14: A fairly good OL needs 'next step'

Bears Camping Out ’14: A fairly good OL needs 'next step'
July 14, 2014, 8:45 am
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Bears Insider John ‘Moon’ Mullin’ is getting you ready for Bears Training Camp, with previews of each position leading up to the day the Bears report to Bourbonnais.

The reconstruction of the offensive line was arguably one of the most successful one-season makeovers, with four new starters, two of them rookies, in franchise annals. Quarterbacks were better protected and Matt Forte rushed for a career-best 1,339 yards: The Bears were the only team to rank in the top 10 for both sack percentage and rushing average.

Structurally the fact that the Bears were able to get the line upgraded with new veterans (Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson) and rookies (Kyle Long, Jordan Mills) flanking Roberto Garza works with the salary cap.

The Bears were one of only three teams (Philadelphia, Washington) to start the same five linemen for all 16 games, although Mills suffered a broken foot in warmups before Green Bay II and had to turn the job over to Eben Britton. Same-five’s are no guarantee of success — the Bears and Washington missed the playoffs — but not coincidentally perhaps, all three were among the top nine offenses in yards per game, and the Bears and Eagles were top-four in scoring.

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“I don’t have analytics on it but I would say that teams where their offensive lines stay together throughout the season have a tendency to improve offensively throughout the season,” said coach Marc Trestman. “To be able to bring them back again, continue to progress, add to the system, is certainly a benefit. We’ve got young guys that are still developing, some veteran guys to help them along, and we’ve really answered the question, feel very fortunate, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll play as well.”

Offseason adjustments

Garza was brought back on a one-year deal as the anchor in the middle, and Slauson was secured with a four-year pact, announced at the same time as new deals for Jay Cutler and Tim Jennings.

Not insignificantly, given the importance of depth (as they found out painfully on the defensive line in ’13), the Bears re-signed swing-tackle Britton for another year and added Brian de la Puente from New Orleans where he played for now-Bears-coordinator Aaron Kromer.

They also used a seventh-round pick on tackle Charles Leno from Boise State. Before dismissing seventh-rounders, consider that Lance Louis and J’Marcus Webb (he did have some good moments). So were Ed O’Bradovich and Mike Pyle, Ray Bray and Hampton Pool. Just sayin’.

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Kromer was elevated to offensive coordinator exclusively and Pat Meyer promoted to line coach, expanding the influence of both. "[The move] is giving Pat Meyer more of an opportunity to have a bigger voice in the offensive line room,” Kromer said, “and it's also given myself a chance to broaden my horizons and not spend 100 percent of my time with the offensive line when it comes to practice and meeting time.”

Training camp will answer…

…how much better an already solid group can get. Long was a Pro Bowl alternate but is still learning the craft of the offensive line, and Mills likewise is at what the organization and he believe is just the beginning of his NFL learning curve. And Britton in particular has been a starter during his career.

“Eben’s going to be competing for the sixth man and also competing to start at guard or tackle,” Kromer said. “We feel good about our positions where we are right now with our starting line. But at no time is anyone granted the position or they walk in and say, ‘This is my position until the end of time.’ If they start playing poorly, they’ll be replaced by someone that’s playing better than them. So we feel good about our starting five right now and we feel good about Eben competing for that sixth spot and if someone starts to play poorly on the starting five, then Eben will have a shot to compete for that.”

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…whether the depth after the starters is good enough to win. That won’t realistically be known until an unfortunate situation arises because of injury, but camp and preseason will be critical with Britton, de la Puente, Ola and others. Mills and Slauson in particular are likely to be brought along slowly because of returning from injuries, meaning that opportunities will be there for understudies to make their cases.