Remember all the buzz last offseason surrounding a talented, cohesive Bears defense that returned 10 starters, not to mention its revered leader, Vic Fangio? That turned out pretty well, with three first-team All Pros and four additional Pro Bowlers or Pro Bowl alternates helping to form the NFL’s preeminent defense.
We’re not saying the Bears offensive line will dominate the way their defense did last season. We’re not saying it’ll be the best in the NFC, never mind the NFL’s premier platoon of protectors and pavers.
But the continuity is undoubtedly similar with all five starters returning on offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s group, plus the arrival of a versatile veteran reserve inside and two possible future starters whose potential no one knows better than Hiestand.
For now, three burning questions the unit must answer as training camp looms.
Will surgery-free offseason lead to RG Kyle Long’s healthiest season since 2015?
Long, the 30-year-old three-time Pro Bowler and Chicago’s second-longest-tenured player, is in a much better place – physically and mentally – than he’s been over the past 3 years, when he missed a combined 22 games and had surgeries on his shoulder, neck, elbow and ankle.
Long’s daily offseason practice presence also fostered the growth of a group where his neighbor and opposite guard are in new spots.
“Critical to our development as a unit,” Hiestand said of a healthy Long’s impact. “Kyle has been consistent and steady in his approach. He’s there every day. He’s helping James [Daniels] a bunch and getting him and Bobby [Massie] together and doing all the things we’re doing instead of being able to do it one day and one day not do it. The whole group benefits from him being in there.”
Long is still the most experienced, highest pedigreed member, bringing a steady hand in pass protection and nasty demeanor to the ground game. If he stays on the field for a full season, an already-solid unit will improve markedly.
Will James Daniels-Cody Whitehair flip-flop seamlessly?
With the 21-year-old Daniels moving to the middle to begin his second season and Whitehair entering his contract year by taking over at left guard, the Bears now have their five best blockers in their ideal spots.
But all the bouquet tossing regarding the moves this spring won’t matter if there are blown protections or botched snaps in the fall, when stud defensive tackles Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark (Green Bay), Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne (Washington) and Minnesota’s Linval Joseph loom.
But the praise from teammates and coaches and progress we’ve seen on the field is all we have to go on right now – and it’s been overwhelmingly positive.
Mitchell Trubisky complimented Daniels for being increasingly vocal, Long likened Whitehair’s professionalism to ex-Bears teammate Matt Slauson’s, and Matt Nagy said – endearingly – he isn’t paying much attention to the group.
We should add here not only Long’s presence but the familiarity of right tackle Bobby Massie, fresh off his contract extension, and first-time Pro Bowl alternate Charles Leno helps mitigate other moving parts.
Are reserves ready?
Hiestand clearly loves Rashaad Coward, the converted Old Dominion D-lineman competing with Cornelius Lucas and T.J. Clemmings for the swing tackle role Bradley Sowell’s move to tight end created.
“It’s perfect for him. And he’s one of the reasons we’re able to do it. Steady growth. Very important to him. Tough guy. Physical guy. Learning all the nuances of the position, but he’s gaining ground,” Hiestand said.
And with the arrival of Hiestand’s former Notre Dame pupils-turned-priority college free agents Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, the Bears inside options are all familiar. Salty utility blocker Ted Larsen is back to spice up battles in Bourbonnais and the group’s vet starting experience.
Hiestand knows the surgeon who operated on the knee off Bars, a mid-round prospect with experience at guard and tackle who tore his ACL in Game 7 last year.
Mustipher is a bar below as a prospect, and could face a tougher roster push, but both have a decided edge on a depth chart with interior uncertainty in 2020.
“I’m shocked they weren’t drafted, to tell the truth, so I think we benefited from that,” he said.
The Bears OL will be among the NFL’s best groups if …
Long is the glue for 16 games and beyond and Long and Massie remain reliable.
The wheels will fall off if …
The old guard crumbles, the new guard is a better center and the edges are exploited.