The Chicago Bears offensive line will make or break the 2021 NFL season. The guys most known for being unknown will have to step up their game in 2021 for the Bears to succeed. The Bear’s offensive line has been mediocre for a few seasons now. The last time they had a solid offensive line was back in 2018 with offensive line stalwarts Cody Whitehair, Charles Leno, and Bobby Massie all grading well. The last two seasons have not gone as well.
After being ranked 11th, 11th, and 15th by PFF in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18, the Chicago Bears offensive line came crashing down along with the entire Bear’s offense in 2019. Ranked 25th after the season, they were the 7th worst line in all of football. Some of this was injury, some of it was QB play, but the Bears failed to address offensive line needs and they were hurt by this failure.
In 2020, the Bears jumped up to the 20th ranked offensive line. This however doesn’t tell the whole story of the 2020 season. Through Week 10 the Bears offensive line had issues. Starting with Week 5 when James Daniels tore his pectoral muscle, the Bears offensive line could not help the Bears compete offensively during their brutal 6 game losing streak. The Bears ranked 26th in total yards (5303) and 23rd in points per game (23.2) in 2020. A big reason was the poor play of their offensive line. That will need to change in 2021 if the Bears hope to improve on their offensive woes from the previous two seasons.
The 2021 offseason was the most challenging offseason in NFL history. With COVID-19 ravaging the nation no industry was left untarnished. The NFL took a hit on the chin. Fans were not allowed in stadiums and revenues dipped. This lead to the first decrease in the NFL salary cap since the cap’s inception in 1994. The cap went from $198 million in 2020 to $182.5 million in 2021. This caused chaos all over the league.
The Bears were not immune to the cap decrease and painful cuts were made. Kyle Fuller was the most painful but the Bears also lost BOTH of their offensive tackles due to the cap decrease. While Charles Leno and Bobby Massie will never be confused with Anthony Munoz and Orlando Pace, they were solid starting tackles that held their own for years on the edge. The Bears needed cheap options at positions of need and they rightfully looked to the NFL Draft to fill those needs.
The best way to replace cap casualty players? Through the draft. Enter Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom. The Bears quickly locked up a swing tackle that played guard in Germain Ifedi to a 1 year, $5 million contract. The plan is for Ifedi, who did a nice job at both guard and tackle for the Bears in 2020 to be a filler until Larry Borom is ready to take over.
Ifedi has talent, he was a first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks who may be a late bloomer. If Ifedi can continue to progress he may hold off Borom, if not, there is a Right Tackle waiting in the wings. The Bears understood they needed to hammer offensive line picks in the draft and hammer they did.
After shocking the world to move up to number 11 and scooping up Justin Fields the Bears could have sat back and let the draft come to them, but then something unexpected happened. Teven Jenkins, the massive and athletic tackle from Oklahoma State, fell into the 2nd round. Ryan Pace, being aggressive Ryan Pace, once again moved up to get his guy. Many predicted the Bears would select Jenkins at number 20 in the first round, instead, they moved up to pick 39 to go get their franchise left tackle.
Go Get Your Guy
In order to move up, the Bears traded their 2nd (52), 3rd (83), and 6th (204) round pick to the Jaguars. In exchange the Bears acquired the Jaguars 2nd (39) and 5th (151) round pick. The Bears selected Jenkins with the 39th pick and with the newly acquired 5th round pick the Bears acquired another massive human, Larry Borom out of the University of Missouri. Borom could end up being another Ryan Pace late-round gem. His film is outstanding and he had one of the lowest pressure percentages for any tackle in college football. He will have to control his weight and learn better technique with his relatively small arms but he has talent and should out perform his 5th round status.
One thing is clear, the Bears understood they needed to address the offensive line and they addressed those needs with two men weighing over 640 pounds combined. The Bears have invested very little in their offensive line in the Matt Nagy era. James Daniels was a 2nd round pick in 2018 but other than Daniels the only investment Ryan Pace has made in the offensive line were two 7th round picks, Arlington Hambright and Lachavious Simmons.
Coming out of their Week 10 bye the Bears were reeling. After starting the season 4-1, including exhilarating wins over Detroit, Atlanta, and eventual Super Bowl champs Tampa Bay, the Bears lost 4 straight games. Nick Foles was not the improvement the Bears hoped for when they traded a 4th round pick for him before the 2020 draft. After Foles was injured against Minnesota in one of the worst offensive performances of the season, Mitch Trubisky was inserted as the starter against Green Bay coming out of their bye in Week 11.
Mitch wasn’t the only change. The Bears decided to makeshift their offensive line and hand play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The Bears came out of the break and inserted Cody Whitehair at left guard, Sam Mustipher at center, Alex Bars at right guard, and Germain Ifedi at right tackle. Pairing the new makeshift line with Charles Leno at left tackle the Bears developed a rhythm with Bill Lazor’s play calling. Lazor was able to make the most out of an improved o-line and use David Montgomery to help the Bears close out the season on a 4-3 run that put them at 8-8 and make the playoffs.
Moving forward, the line will look drastically different. Charles Leno is gone, becoming a cap casualty. Taking his place will be Teven Jenkins at left tackle. Cody Whitehair will resume his duties at left guard where he played like an all-pro late in the 2020 season. Guard has always been Whitehair’s best position and there is no need to move him back to center where he has struggled. Undersized but well prepared Sam Mustipher should again start at center and work on all the calls with Dalton and Fields. James Daniels will compete for the right guard spot and it’s his to lose after his injury last year. While journeyman Germain Ifedi should man the right tackle position to start the season barring an uber impressive showing from rookie Larry Borom.
Alex Bars was a welcome addition to the line last year at guard. Playing next to his Notre Dame teammate Mustipher he filled in admirably. I expect Bars and Daniels will battle for the right guard position in camp and Borom and Ifedi will battle for the right tackle position. Ifedi was spoken of highly by the Bears offensive line coach Juan Castillo who said, “Germain Ifedi is blessed with God-given talent. My job as a coach is to get that out of him.”
The starting five should be left to right will be Teven Jenkins (LT), Cody Whitehair (LG), Sam Mustipher(Center), James Daniels (RG), and Germain Ifedi (RT) to start the season. With Alex Bars, Larry Borom, and newly signed Elijah Wilkerson coming over from Denver playing in a backup role. This provides solid depth in case of injury.
With good fortune and good health, the Bears revamped line should take steps toward being a top 15-18 offensive line. This would make the line average, but the average would be an improvement and might be enough to improve the overall offense and build toward 2022.
A big part of their success in 2021 will be running the football. Recent reports have stated that Matt Nagy wants to give David Montgomery 20 rushes a game, which would put him in the Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook range for carries. Soon we will find out if this is coach speak or if Nagy has seen through his flaws and acknowledge his team’s strengths should go through David Montgomery.
Montgomery finished the season on a tear last year. In fantasy football circles David Montgomery is a bit of a hero for being the best back in football the last six weeks. Outscoring King Henry and Alvin Kamara who had a six-touchdown game in Week 16. A big part of his success was due to poor competition but it was also due to Lazor’s ability to continue to stay with the run.
That is something Matt Nagy will have to do if he wants to be successful in 2021. With a new quarterback in either Andy Dalton or Justin Fields, it will be imperative that Nagy breaks his pass-happy trends and leans on Montgomery, Damien Williams, and Khalil Herbert. With an added 17th game this season the running backs will need to stay fresh and under no circumstance should the Bears be a team that throws the rock 40 times a game. That will be a recipe for disaster. In order to protect their newfound toy in Justin Fields and ease in their inexperienced offensive lineman in Jenkins and Mustipher, they have to establish the run.
Protect at all costs
The future is bright in Chicago for many reasons but the main reason always comes back to Justin Fields. Fields is a generational talent and even though Nagy says he wants Fields to wait until he’s ready. Fields is not Mitch Trubisky. In the sense, Mitch was extremely inexperienced and raw coming out of UNC. Fields has played at the highest level of college football. He will be ready sooner rather than later and that Chicago Bears offensive line will have to do all they can to protect him.
The cool thing about watching Justin Fields play is that he is a pocket passer. He is very calm in the pocket and he can use his athleticism to escape pressure. Fields does like to look deep. This can often come with dangerous consequences if the offensive line can not keep pressure off of him. In order to protect Fields, the key will be running the football. The Bears can’t just say they want to run the ball either, they will need to be successful running the ball to establish a rhythm in their offense and use play-action to make easy throws with wider windows.
The Chosen One
The entire 2021 season will be about Justin Fields’ progression. In order for him to progress Teven Jenkins and the entire Chicago Bears offensive line will need to progress. This is a line in flux, but this is a line that has the potential to be a top 10 unit in 2021.
The offensive line has been mediocre for the Bears for most of the last decade. They are now in a position to improve this element of their team. Only time will tell if their coaches can help with the progression but there is no shortage of talent on the five dudes up front. It will be up to them to hold the line, protect the front, and make sure they are doing damage to opposing defenses.
I for one, can’t wait to watch the big guys work. The Chicago Bears offensive line should be one of the most fascinating areas of the entire team in 2021. Once the unit gels and IF they stay healthy, the line may surprise some folks. There is much to be excited about for the Bears Future.
Imagine if the team was able to land a franchise quarterback, franchise left tackle, and a solid right starting right tackle in one draft? Ryan Pace would go from GOAT to GAWD overnight. Pay attention to the Bears offensive line, they might just be building something special.