Cody Whitehair

Bears offensive line ranked 13th in NFL by Pro Football Focus

Bears offensive line ranked 13th in NFL by Pro Football Focus

The Chicago Bears are entering an exciting time. From Mitchell Trubisky, the young franchise quarterback GM Ryan Pace has hung his reputation on, to a defense that may have continued its long-standing tradition at inside linebacker with first-round pick Roquan Smith, there's good reason to be optimistic.

However, football is won in the trenches, and for the Bears to have any chance at a playoff run this season, they'll need exceptional play from the offensive line. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Chicago has the talent up front to contend. PFF ranked the Bears' offensive line 13th in the NFL.

13. CHICAGO BEARS

2017 season-end rank: 11th (-2)

We had this line ranked fifth at this time a season ago, but that was before Cody Whitehair disappointed in his sophomore campaign and Josh Sitton moved on to Miami. The interior that was so strong in 2016 and fueled a huge rookie campaign from Jordan Howard that all of a sudden looks much different. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. Rookie second-round pick James Daniels out of Iowa slots into left guard and was the highest run-blocking graded center in the country last year at only 20 years old. If Whitehair can get back to his rookie level which saw him earn an 85.9 overall grade and Kyle Long can stay healthy, this will be a top line once again.

The second-round selection of James Daniels, while noted as a good pick by most analysts, still feels underappreciated. His presence allows Whitehair to focus solely on playing center (assuming Kyle Long and Daniels stay healthy) and that will go a long way in helping him return to his rookie year form, as noted by PFF.

Still, much of the success up front will depend on how well right tackle Bobby Massie plays in pass protection. He has to hold up in order for Trubisky to take advantage of his new set of skill players, and while Massie hasn't been a total liability, he needs to play more consistent football in 2018.

The Bears offense is setting up for a huge year in 2018 that will largely depend on the play of five guys who won't catch a pass or score a touchdown. If they give Trubisky time to throw and open holes for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, a fight for the playoffs in December is a very real possibility.

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.

The five Bears players impacted the most by the NFL Draft

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The five Bears players impacted the most by the NFL Draft

Akiem Hicks isn't the biggest fan of the NFL Draft for the reasons that plenty of veteran players across the NFL would offer. 

"I don’t like the draft, dude," Hicks said earlier this month. "I always like to see the same faces. I’m superstitious, but I also like things to stay the same to an extent. So I like to see the same faces and have that camaraderie already built up with the guys and you just have to bring that together and do it even better. But it’s inevitable, there’s going to be change. Guys are going to come in and they have to assimilate and make our defense better.”

The Bears drafted at least three players (linebacker Roquan Smith, offensive lineman James Daniels and wide receiver Anthony Miller) who could be Week 1 starters. That means three veterans will lose their starting roles, though. So who will be impacted the most by the players drafted by Ryan Pace over the weekend?

WR Kevin White

The addition of Miller in the second round probably doesn’t change White’s position on the depth chart, which likely is behind Allen Robinson at the “X” outside receiver spot. But what adding Miller does for White is take even more pressure off the fourth-year receiver, at least as it relates to how badly the Bears need him to produce in 2018. The Bears can afford to bring White along slowly and don’t need him to be a focal point in their offense, as he would’ve been in 2017, and it feels like whatever the 2015 first-round pick produces will be a bonus. 

As for White’s future, the expectation is the Bears will decline his fifth-year option this week, making him a free agent after the season. If he’s good, he’ll play — as was the case with Kyle Fuller a year ago — and can set himself up for a nice payday, either from the Bears or another team. If he’s injured or struggles to re-gain the form that made him a top-10 pick three years ago, then he won’t get much playing time and will face an uncertain future after the season. 

OL Cody Whitehair

It was perhaps a little surprising that Pace, only a few hours after drafting Daniels 39th overall, said the Bears would begin working with their second-round pick as a guard, not a center — the position at which he played so well in college. But it was more of a nod to Whitehair’s play at center over the last two years than anything else and not immediately be bumped off that position by a draft pick. 

The Bears, though, will cross-train Daniels at center, and Harry Hiestand could ultimately decide the best offensive line combination has Whitehair at left guard and Daniels at center. The versatility both Whitehair and Daniels have is a plus; the downside is the Whitehair got off to a slow start to 2017 after being shuffled around the offensive line quite a bit prior to the season. Perhaps the best practice here would be to settle on Whitehair and Daniels’ positions as early as possible in training camp. 

LB Nick Kwiatkoski

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio values Kwiatkoski, so even though the Bears drafted a pair of inside linebackers, he’ll still see playing time this fall. Perhaps Kwiatkoski becomes this year’s version of Christian Jones, as in a solid inside linebacker who can play outside. But with Danny Trevathan having not played a full 16-game season since 2013, having Kwiatkoski as a depth piece will carry plenty of value. 

DL Jonathan Bullard

Presumably, the second defensive end spot in Fangio’s base 3-4 defense will be Bullard’s to lose heading into training camp. Roy Robertson-Harris could make a push for that spot, as could fifth-round pick Bilal Nichols. Competition will be good for this position, since Bullard deserves a shot to start in Year 3 but hasn’t shown enough in his first two seasons to be handed that prominent of a role. 

"There’s no question in my mind that he has the talent," Hicks said of Bullard. "One thing that he’s picked up as of late and last year as well is just his work ethic. I think that he now knows what it means to be in the NFL. You can be here today and gone tomorrow. So you’ve got to be able to put your best foot forward at any moment and I think that he’s ready to take on that position.”

QB Mitch Trubisky

Barring a surprise, the Bears are done making significant additions to their offense, with everything else from here on out likely being undrafted free agent signings and players brought in for tryouts. In short: The pieces that are around Trubisky now are likely the ones that’ll be around him on at Lambeau Field the night of Sept. 9. While Pace said he won’t ever be satisfied with the players he’s brought in, consider who he’s added since the start of free agency, among others:

Allen Robinson
Taylor Gabriel
Trey Burton
Chase Daniel
Bennie Fowler
Earl Watford
James Daniels
Anthony Miller

That’s five projected starters (Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, Daniels, Miller), a backup quarterback who knows Nagy’s offense (Daniel) and two depth pieces (Fowler, Watford). Now, it’s incumbent on Trubisky to take the next step in his development and make all these additions pay off for Pace and the Bears.