Zooming in on the Blockers, Vol. 2: Guards

| March 7th, 2023

Yesterday, we explored the tackles, where Braxton Jones looks like a solid starter. Today, we will look at the guards.

Pass Blocking

The Bears had four guards play meaningful snaps last year, and the table below shows how they held up in pass protection compared to the 77 guards around the NFL who had at least 200 pass blocking snaps (Lucas Patrick did not have enough snaps to qualify, so his ranks are where he would have fit if he did). All data is from Pro Football Focus (PFF), and true pass sets are intended to remove plays designed to minimize the pass rush, such as screens, play action, and rollout. Cells highlighted in green indicate they ranked in the top 25%, while red indicates the bottom 25%.

A few thoughts:

  • Like we saw with the tackles, the Bears minimized the amount of true pass sets in order to protect an offensive line that they didn’t trust to hold up in protection. And like we saw with tackles, they generally had good reason not to trust the line, as there’s a whole lot of red and not a lot of green in this chart.
  • Looking at individual players, the top three aren’t too bad. Nobody really stands out as being all that good, but they’re mostly around average to maybe a bit below average.
  • Lucas Patrick, on the other hand, was horrible. I know he struggled through injuries last year, but he was legitimately one of the worst guards in the NFL.

Teven Jenkins got a lot of hype from Bears fans last year, but he seemed to struggle a bit as a pass protector, especially in true pass sets. Of course, it was his first season as a starter, so it’s possible that he improved as the season went on, like we saw from Braxton Jones yesterday. The table below looks at his performance when splitting the season into four-game intervals. Jenkins got hurt during the season in 2022, so he only played five games from Week 9 on, and those are all put into one sample.

Here you can see that some improvement was made as a pass protector, at least based on PFF’s grades. This is especially evident in the true pass sets, which is where Jenkins most struggled. Hopefully that progress can continue going forward.

It’s also worth splitting up Cody Whitehair’s season, as he suffered a knee injury in the fourth game of the season that caused him to miss a month. The table below shows how he performed before and after the injury.

As you can see, it doesn’t look like Whitehair saw a significant impact in his pass blocking performance due to the injury.

Run Blocking

There is less data to go on here, as I have nothing but PFF grades for the players. PFF does split the data into gap and zone runs; you can read more here for information about the difference, but generally zone runs make the lineman responsible for a specific area and let the running back read where the hole is, while gap runs aim to clear a hole in a specific gap.

The table below shows how Chicago’s four guards graded out compared to 64 NFL guards with 200+ run blocking snaps in 2022. Cells highlighted in green indicate they ranked in the top 25%, while red indicates the bottom 25% (Lucas Patrick’s ranks are where he would have been if he had enough snaps to qualify).

A few thoughts:

  • Like we saw with the tackles, the Bears generally ran more zone and less gap than the average NFL team.
  • Teven Jenkins really stands out here as a monster in the run game. He was one of the best run blocking guards in the NFL, and that held true in both zone and gap plays.
  • The rest of the guards generally graded out as somewhere around average, and none of them were either particularly great or horrible in gap or zone looks.

Like we did with pass protection above, I want to split up two of these players’ seasons into segments. The first is Teven Jenkins, who was in his first year as a starter and thus may have grown on the job.

As you can see, Jenkins’ run blocking does improve, especially in gap plays. He was consistently good in zone runs, but struggled blocking gap plays early in the year before improving to a dominant level there as well.

Cody Whitehair also deserves a look to see how he performed before and after his knee injury in Week 4.

That is quite striking. Whitehair was a well-above average run blocker early in the season, but well below average after coming back from injury. I would guess that the knee hindered his mobility, which is a major problem for guards who need to pull and get to the second level in the running game.

Looking to Free Agency

Teven Jenkins seems locked in as Chicago’s starting right guard for 2023, and that is a good thing. By late in the year, he was an average pass blocker and dominant in the ground game, which is a good combination. Between Jenkins and Braxton Jones, the Bears have two young lineman who are great run blockers and still improving in the passing game.

The left guard spot is a bit more of a question mark. Cody Whitehair is the incumbent there, and that is probably adequate if the Bears can get his pre-injury form from 2021, which saw him as an average pass protector and quality run blocker. However, Whitehair will be 31 by training camp, and it’s possible the Bears decide they can’t count on him reverting to and staying in pre-injury form. Chicago could save $5.8 million by cutting him, and then look to replace him in free agency or the draft.

Looking at the other guards, Michael Schofield is 32 and a free agent, and I doubt the Bears will be interested in bringing him back. Lucas Patrick is still under contract for 2023, but he was absolutely awful in 2022, and I would like to see the Bears cut him and spend the $4 million they would save on somebody better.

My guess is that the Bears don’t look to make a huge splash at guard in free agency, but instead look to address the position on day two of the draft. There are several options they could consider there, including Cody Mauch and Steve Avila. If they are able to land a player they like in the draft, then they can cut one of Whitehair or Patrick and let the remaining veteran compete with the rookie to start.

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