Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

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.

Offseason adjustments

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.”

Depth-charting

RT    Bobby Massie

RG   Kyle Long

C      Hroniss Grasu

LG    Ted Larsen/Cody Whitehair

LT    Charles Leno

The mix

Nick Becton

Adrian Bellard

Nate Chandler

Cornelius Edison

John Kling

Martin Wallace

Jason Weaver

Donovan Williams

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.”

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Before Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey met with the media on Wednesday, Allen Robinson was curious what his position coach would say about him in public. 

“I just told him, I don’t know you,” Furrey quipped. “Who’s Allen Robinson?”

Furrey, of course, knows who Robinson is. But the point behind that joke is that Furrey, the Bears’ court wide receivers coach in four years, is still getting to know all of his receivers — let alone the one who hasn’t participated in a practice yet. For all the positivity that's easy to find around Halas Hall these days, the Bears' biggest offseason acquisition hasn't taken a rep yet. 

The good news for the Bears, of course, is that Robinson’s past play speaks for itself. He combined for 153 catches, 2,883 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, and has been adamant he’ll return to that high level of play when he’s cleared to practice. The Bears were confident enough in Robinson’s medicals to guarantee him a little over $25 million in March, per Spotrac, about a month before they let Cameron Meredith sign with the New Orleans Saints largely over medical concerns (Meredith’s torn ACL was viewed as more serious than Robinson’s, in short). 

So the getting-to-know-you phase for Furrey and Robinson is largely taking place off the field in the meeting rooms of Halas Hall. 

“What a great young man,” Furrey said. “He’s come in here, obviously, rehabbing and doing all those things. But he’s alert, he comes to meetings, he’s ready to go. Really, really smart, you can tell that from the beginning and he’s a professional.”

What Furrey, in particular, likes about Robinson is that he’s an “alpha,” but is far more than all talk and no action. 

“And a lot of times that alpha talks a lot and they don’t really put it out there,” Furrey said. “He kind of has that alpha quietness to him. He understands what’s going on, you can look at him and you just kind of get that feel of he has a great understanding of how to approach this game at this level. Obviously he’s been highly successful for a couple years with some big numbers, but he doesn’t act like that. He’s still hungry, he wants to learn, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is a good trait to have too. So we’re excited about that.”

The expectation all along has been for Robinson to be cleared to fully participate in training camp practices. So while coach Matt Nagy said last week Robinson is “ahead of the game,” that may not mean he takes part in the final round of OTAs next week or veteran minicamp the first week of June. 

But while Robinson can’t prove himself to his new coaches on the field yet, he’s doing the right things off the field to make a positive first impression. 

“He knows you gotta come in early, he knows you gotta be the last one to leave, he knows you gotta study,” Furrey said. “It doesn’t matter five years in, six years in, you gotta take notes. It doesn’t matter if you hear it 10 times, you just gotta keep taking notes. He’s been really good at that, and I’ve been really impressed with that. I’ve been able to get on the field with him a little bit, just kind of throwing some balls to him, and I didn’t know he was that big. But obviously we’re excited for it to happen out there.” 

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Mitch Trubisky has been set up for a huge season in 2018 with all the firepower the Chicago Bears added on offense. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton will give the second-year quarterback a variety of explosive targets to generate points in bunches.

None of the headline-grabbing moves will matter, however, if the offensive line doesn't do its job. 

According to Numberfire.com, the Bears' starting five could be the offense's Achilles heel. They were ranked 21st in the NFL and described as poor in pass protection.

Last year, the Bears ranked 26th in Sack NEP per drop back and 23rd in sack rate. These issues were especially apparent after Trubisky took over. In the games that [Kyle] Long played, their sack rate was 8.2%. It was actually 7.2% in the games that he missed. They struggled even when Long was healthy.

The Bears added Iowa's James Daniels in the second round of April's draft and he's expected to start at guard alongside Long. Cody Whitehair will resume his role as the starting center, with Charles Leno, Jr. and Bobby Massie at offensive tackle.

If Long comes back healthy and Daniels lives up to his draft cost, they should be a good run-blocking team from the jump. But Long has played just 18 games the past two years and is entering his age-30 season, so that's far from a lock. On top of that, the pass blocking was suspect last year and remains a mystery entering 2018.

The biggest addition to the offensive line is Harry Hiestand, the accomplished position coach who returns to Chicago after once serving in the same role under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. He most recently coached at Notre Dame and helped develop multiple first-round picks. He's going to have a huge impact.

The good news for the Bears is they weren't the lowest-ranked offensive line in the NFC North. The Vikings came in at No. 25. The Packers checked-in at No. 13, while the Lions were 16th.