While it isn’t the dire situation we saw a year ago, the Chicago Bears have entered training camp with questions along their offensive line.
The Bears made two big investments in their offensive line, signing guard Nate Davis and drafting tackle Darnell Wright, but it’s still worth questioning if that is enough. The Bears will be relying on three unproven players as well as two veterans who need to step forward in 2023, and for this offensive line to compete against the best defensive lines on their schedule they’ll need quite a bit of luck to break their way.
The offensive tackle position could be problematic. The upside of both Wright and left tackle Braxton Jones is apparent — both have everything one could want from a physical standpoint. Wright played well at Tennessee last year and there’s no reason to second-guess the team for picking him. That said, it isn’t unusual for tackles to struggle as rookies.
Teams can usually live with rookie struggles, but Braxton Jones is hardly a proven commodity on the other side. He played well for a fifth-round pick last year, but still wasn’t playing at what most would consider a starting level. In 206 true pass sets — defined by Pro Football Focus as pass plays that exclude plays with fewer than four rushers, play action, screens, short drop backs and time to throw under two seconds — Jones allowed 30 pressures. That’s the 10th most in the league, despite having just 206 snaps in those situations. PFF graded Jones’ pass blocking efficiency in true pass sets 57th out of 60 players with at least 150 true pass sets. He wasn’t even as efficient as Larry Borom was as a rookie, though the upsides of both players aren’t close.
Going into camp without any competition for Jones is certainly a bet on upside and coaching. If it pays off, Ryan Poles and company will look like geniuses. If it doesn’t and Wright goes through typical rookie struggles, the Bears are going to have a major problem.
The concerns aren’t limited to the tackle position though.
At left guard, Teven Jenkins is in a similar position to Jones — but add in some injury concerns. In just 113 true pass sets last year, Jenkins allowed 10 pressures. He was 56th (out of 70) in pass blocking efficiency amongst guards with 100 or more true pass sets. If you think that’s bad, the player the team has projected to start at center, Cody Whitehair, was 62nd and the top reserve, Lucas Patrick, was even worse — though he had just 59 such snaps and was playing injured for all of them. The team’s top offensive free agent signee, Davis, was 48th in such situations.
One thing that should be noted with the Bears and true pass sets, however, is that the Bears passing game was designed around the strengths of Justin Fields. That meant deeper drops that, due to issues with both the offensive line and the pass catchers, we didn’t typically see outside of obvious passing situations. Still, true pass sets are typically obvious passing situations for all teams and the Bears did not protect the quarterback well enough. Having a run-heavy attack doesn’t excuse those issues either, as the two most efficient guards were Chris Lindstrom of Atlanta (first in rushing attempts) and Baltimore’s Ben Powers (seventh).
Unlike offensive tackle, the Bears could have some options if the starters struggle. Patrick was solid with the Green Bay Packers in 2021 and there’s no reason to think he can’t return to that level of play if healthy. There’s also another high upside player in Ja’Tyre Carter who only allowed one pressure in regular or preseason play as a rookie last year — though he played just 41 snaps.
Improvements around the offensive line should help. The Bears should be better in the quick passing game and having wide receivers who can get open should help Fields get the ball out quicker. But Fields will likely always be a quarterback who holds onto the ball longer than he probably should and the Bears will need to work around that.
There is a world in which Jones, Wright and Jenkins all reach their upsides and both Whitehair and Davis have solid years. In that case, the Bears offensive line will be a strength. Even if just two of the three high upside players hit, the Bears would be thrilled.
But there’s also a world in which Jones and Jenkins haven’t made considerable improvements, Wright goes through rookie struggles, and both Whitehair and Patrick deal with injuries.
The Bears have expressed their confidence in Chris Morgan several times this offseason, their bet is on him as much as it is on the players. If he proves to be a great offensive line coach, he should be able to have this unit at a respectable level.
In any case, however, the Bears are poised to enter training camp with more hope than certainty.