In the wake of the 2013 free agency, draft and offseason work at minicamps and OTAs, CSNChicago.com examines where the Bears have gone and where they will be going when training camp convenes in late July. One of a series.
The recap: Outside of the coaching staff, no area of the organization on or off the field has undergone the makeover that the offensive line has been put through. And is still going through expectations are that four of the five positions will have starters different from the ones that started, or finished, the 2012 season.
The overarching reason was that GM Phil Emery was not going to make the same mistake/miscalculation twice. The Bears did not make significant changes on the O-line going into the 2012 season because they believed they were reasonably fixed, particularly at tackle, where they had youth and potential in Gabe Carimi and J’Marcus Webb.
They also thought themselves serviceable at guard with Chris Spencer and Lance Louis, with backup in Chilo Rachal. Spencer lost his job at left in the week-two loss at Green Bay, replaced by Rachal, who lost his compass and more in the debacle at San Francisco. Before the year was done, the Bears had four different starters at left guard – Spencer, Rachal, Edwin Williams (who also lost the job, in Minnesota II), and James Brown, with a one-game drop-in by Spencer.
Right guard came unglued when Louis suffered a season-ending knee injury, precipitating a free fall to Carimi for three starts and then Spencer for the final two games.
The new coaching staff, anchored in large part by coordinator/line coach Aaron Kromer, and Emery addressed left tackle by striking quickly in free agency for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a Kromer Pro Bowl product in New Orleans. They addressed one guard spot by signing former New York Jet Matt Slauson.
The other guard job was ostensibly upgraded with the use of the team’s No. 1 draft choice on Oregon guard Kyle Long. Right tackle is expected to belong to Webb, who graded out last season as the Bears’ top lineman in 2012. Webb also worked out adequately when thrown in as a rookie at right tackle after a season-ending knee to Carimi.
Significantly perhaps, Webb is in a contract year. He also is in competition with veteran Jonathan Scott, who replaced Carimi after San Francisco last season and started five of the final six games.
Emery used a fifth-round pick on a player to watch: guard/tackle Jordan Mills, who drew quiet praise in the early offseason work.
“We don’t care if they were first-round picks or college free agents or we got them off the street and they were cut by eight teams like guys I’ve coached and started in the past,” Kromer said.
Issue No. 1: Forming a unit of “one”
The changes, in addition to Kromer replacing Mike Tice in a similar dual role, project to build on some overlooked progress amid the late-season shuffling.
Despite four games against playoff teams in the final six (two vs. Minnesota, Green Bay, Seattle), the Bears allowed just 10 sacks over those final six games (1.67 per game), less than half the rate of quarterback takedowns from the first 10 (3.4 per game).
Despite just three faceoffs against playoff teams in the first 10 games, the Bears rushed for 100 yards in only six games. They rushed for no fewer than 113 yards in five of the final six.
But the next step, toward what the Bears (particularly Jay Cutler and Matt Forte) hope will become a top line instead of simply passable, is more difficult. No group has a higher premium on cohesion and working as one than the offensive line. One bad pass route or one blocked defender can be overcome more easily than a blown block or assignment.
That becomes the task of the group individually and collectively through training camp.
Webb “returns” to right tackle a vastly different player than the rookie seventh-rounder forced into early duty there in 2010, then shunted to left tackle with no offseason because of the lockout. But Slauson has worked primarily at left guard, meaning that Webb will be alongside either Long, a rookie, or James Brown, an undrafted free agent last year, whose only three starts came at left guard.
An interesting offseason is not going to end in Bourbonnais. It will potentially be accelerating.
“Jordan Mills [has] looked good,” Emery said. “We’re pleased with how he’s looked. And obviously, there’s a lot of combinations of players out there in terms of offensive line. Eben Britton, who we’ve brought in from Jacksonville, has also played tackle.
“So there’s a lot of ways to look at it to find the best five and finding the next best three or four after that.”
Next week: Defense, special teams