Zooming in on the Blockers, Vol. 1: Tackles

| March 6th, 2023

Free agency is right around the corner, and the Bears have money to spend. In order to best understand which positions they need to prioritize, it helps to examine who they have coming back. I already did that at both defensive end and defensive tackle, and this week the focus shifts to the offensive line. That starts today with a look at the tackles.

Pass Blocking

The Bears had three offensive tackles play meaningful snaps last year, and the table below shows how they held up in pass protection compared to the 79 tackles around the NFL who had at least 200 pass blocking snaps. 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:

  • The first thing to notice is that the Bears utilized true pass sets at among the lowest rate of any NFL team last year. This indicates the lack of trust they had in their offensive line. To think of it another way, the Bears helped their offensive line in pass protection more than pretty much any NFL team.
  • The rest of the data makes it pretty clear why the Bears didn’t trust their tackles to hold up in pass protection. All three of them ranked below average in pretty much every category.
  • This data is especially concerning for Braxton Jones, who graded the worst of the three but is generally expected to be Chicago’s starting left tackle in 2023. However, he was a rookie in 2022, so perhaps he showed growth throughout the season. To check that hypothesis, the table below shows how he graded if you split the season into four-game samples. (Five games at the end of the year. Curse you, 17th game for messing up the easy sample breakdown!)

This is highly encouraging. Jones improved fairly consistently throughout the year, and performed as an above average tackle – even in true pass sets – for the last month of the season. That’s admittedly a small sample size, though Jones did play every snap in those 5 games but bodes well for the future if he can continue to perform at that rate.

One other note I found interesting: the Bears utilized true pass sets far more often in those final five games. They were between 35-37% of all pass plays through the first 12 games, but rose to 43% in the last five, which would be right around league average. I’m guessing that says that they shifted more to wanting to evaluate guys for the future than win games in the last few weeks of the season, and perhaps hints at the type of offense they hope to run going forward.

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 three tackles graded out compared to 62 NFL tackles with 200+ run blocks in 2022. Cells highlighted in green indicate they ranked in the top 25%, while red indicates the bottom 25%.

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that stands out to me is looking at the gap and zone rates for all three tackles. These show that the Bears generally ran a little more zone and a little less gap than the average NFL team, which is not a surprise. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy comes from the Mike Shanahan tree, which is famous for zone runs.
  • Looking at individual players, we see Braxton Jones stand out as one of the better run blocking tackles in the NFL. This is especially buoyed by being an outstanding gap blocker, since he was only average in zone.
  • Larry Borom and Riley Reiff, meanwhile, were generally average to below average in run blocking.

We saw above that Braxton Jones improved significantly as a pass blocker over the course of his rookie season, so it’s worth looking here to see if that happened in run blocking too. The table below splits up his season into four game samples (five for the end of the year).

Here you can see that his run blocking did clearly improve, in particular after a tough first month of the season. The biggest difference was in zone blocking, where he went from really bad to around average.

Like we saw above with pass blocking, the Bears’ play calls changed as the season wore on. They were at 59% zone plays in the first month, but that steadily dropped to 54%, 49%, and then 45% in four-game samples as the season wore on. Gap plays increased to make up some (but not all) of that change, rising from 34% early in the year to 41% later in the season. This doesn’t seem to have been a late season only change, which makes me wonder if it was a response to personnel strengths as they figured out what they could do well.

Looking to Free Agency

Braxton Jones seems likely to be Chicago’s starting left tackle in 2023, and that makes a lot of sense to me. By the end of his rookie season, he was an above-average pass blocker and elite run blocker. Even if the pass blocking ends up only average, that’s still a solid starter.

Things are less rosy when you look to the right side of the line. Riley Reiff and Larry Borom are both solid backups, but neither is good enough for you to feel confident in them as the planned starter heading into training camp. Reiff is 34 and a free agent, so I doubt Chicago looks to bring him back, but Borom makes a lot of sense as a cheap swing tackle who still has two years left on his rookie deal.

That leaves the Bears needing a starting right tackle in either free agency or the draft. I fully expect this to be one of their top priorities in free agency, where players like Mike McGlinchey, Jawaan Taylor, and Kaleb McGary are currently slated to hit the market. If they decide to try for a young pair of bookend tackles in the draft, they could look for somebody like Paris Johnson Jr. in round one after a trade down or Matthew Bergeron, Darnell Wright, or Jaelyn Duncan on day two.

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