The operative Bears word was “competition” throughout the offseason within every position group. With that mantra came turnover, and of the 14 offensive linemen presently on the Bears roster, exactly four were under Bears contract this time last year, and only one of those finished the 2015 season at the position he currently occupies. Of the 14, only one is older than 27, and that one (guard Ted Larsen) just turned 29.
The Bears ran the football more than 46 percent of the time last season, noteworthy if only because 6-10 teams are typically throwing the ball predominantly because they’re behind. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and others within the organization, topped by coach John Fox, have been blunt about their intention to run the football even more, all of which demands an offensive line with command of the line of scrimmage, which the Bears did not have often enough last year.
One case was that the Bears started seven different offensive line combinations in 2015, only one of them for more than three straight games and with only one player – Kyle Long – starting all 16 games at the same position – right tackle. Lest there be too much continuity for a group that requires it more than most, Long is back at right guard, and the other four starters from game one last season are no longer on the roster.
On the plus side, Charles Leno Jr. established himself to the organization’s satisfaction as the starting left tackle, and Hroniss Grasu will start training camp as the No. 1 center after starting eight of the last 12 games in the spot for which he was drafted.
“We got a lot to look forward to, Chicago has a lot to look forward to with,” Long said. “Got a lot of youth and the guys who are ‘older guys’ are not that old, so we're fired up about it and we know that there's a lot ahead for this group.”
Establishing that has been in process all offseason and increases exponentially in training camp, when pads come on for the first time since game 16 last season, in a stretch approaching seven months.
As they did on defense, the Bears were aggressive in free agency and followed that with targeted moves in the draft. GM Ryan Pace signed Larsen and right tackle Bobby Massie, both from Arizona and both from a now-perennial playoff team under coach Bruce Arians.
Both Larsen and Massie were installed as starters, although Larsen, who took a starting job from No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper late last season, was absent for unspecified reasons late in OTA’s. In his place, Cody Whitehair spent extensive practice team at left guard and acquitted himself as the Bears hoped a No. 2 draft pick would. Whitehair emerging as a starter sooner rather than later might be a mild surprise, although Long and Grasu both started as rookies, albeit because of injury in Grasu’s case.
“The curiosity really is the type of kid he is,” said coordinator Dowell Loggains during spring practices. “We drafted a very high character guy that has played a lot of football. He’s tough. He’s the type of player that coach Fox wants. When you talk about a throwback, old school guy, that’s Cody.”
RT Bobby Massie
RG Kyle Long
C Hroniss Grasu
LG Ted Larsen/Cody Whitehair
LT Charles Leno
3 questions camp will begin to answer…
…how dominant the Bears’ right side can become. Long and Massie are twin-towers: 6-6, 325’ish pounds, and physical, mauling blockers. “We are going to look good on the right side,” said line coach Dave Magazu.
Looking good breaking the huddle will be one thing; the run-based Bears moved Long back to guard and signed Massie to look good standing over opponents, and live sessions in training camp will be about forging these two into the Bruise Brothers.
…whether Hroniss Grasu is physically up to the demands in the middle. He was not as a rookie and was set back by a couple of injuries, and the organization thought the situation dictated signing a veteran, the since-retired Manny Ramirez. The Bears drafted Whitehair in the second round but Grasu is a key to the line.
“I think he got a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger,” Magazu said. “He’s over 300 [pounds]; there were times [last season] when he was under 300. He is a competitor. He’s smart, he’s tough, he loves playing football. He knows what he needs to work on and he takes it very personally.”
…is Cody Whitehair the sleeper of the ’16 draft class? Most No. 2’s hardly qualify as “sleepers” but offensive linemen do not often win jobs outright before the starts of their rookie seasons. Whitehair has had opportunities with Ted Larsen missing time in OTA’s and has impressed. Now that the pads are coming on… ?
“I think we’ve got a really good group,” said quarterback Jay Cutler during OTA sessions last month. “We don’t have to say much to them. Hroniss in the middle kind of controlling them. You know Kyle, he has let everyone know in Chicago that he is happy to be back at guard and he works out with Bobby so he’s known Bobby forever and Chuck is on the left side and he is kind of consistent every day.
“It’s a really good group. I think we’ve got some depth on the inside. It is just going to be experience with those guys. Like the backfield, there is going to be some growing pains and there is going to be some stuff in preseason that we have to fix. Overall, really happy with how they have progressed through the offseason.”