Leading up to the NFL draft, which begins May 8, the Sun-Times is taking a position-by-position look at the Bears’ needs and which players might be available to fill them.
One year after trotting out seven different starting lineups on the offensive line, the Bears began every game in 2013 with the same five men. Only two other teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, could say the same.
The good fortune of health is an aberration for any team. And the law of averages dictates the Bears will need to dive into their depth on the offensive line more this season than they did the last.
The search for depth likely won’t continue into next month’s NFL draft, though, after the Bears added backup center Brian de la Puente and re-signed backup tackle/guard Eben Britton this offseason.
That the Bears are stable enough to merely bring in reserves is a minor miracle, given the state of the line in 2012.
They added four starting linemen last offseason, inking left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a huge deal, signing left guard Matt Slauson to a one-year contract and drafting right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills.
They followed up on Slauson’s make-good deal with a four-year extension days after the season ended. In late February, they returned leader Roberto Garza to the fold with a one-year, $1.5 million deal.
And while Garza said he’ll evaluate whether he’ll continue playing at the end of the season — ‘‘If I feel good this time of year, I will,’’ he said — the Bears are prepared if he were to leave. Earlier this month, they signed Saints center de la Puente, who started every game the last two seasons, to a one-year contract. They’ll pay him $730,001, per players union records.
That dollar matters: By paying de la Puente $1 more than the veteran minimum, the Bears, per union rules, will be able to negotiate an in-season extension beyond one year and the exact same salary. (They were unable to with quarterback Josh McCown when he played for the minimum last season.)
The Bears’ other insurance policy, Britton, re-signed this month for $730,000. He figures to spend more time at guard and tackle — he played the latter in replacing Mills for most of Week 17 — than as the blocking tight end.
That gives the Bears seven veteran linemen, the same number they dressed for games last season.
If they draft a lineman, it likely would be a developmental project on the last day. He wouldn’t see the field during the season if — and that’s a big if — veterans continue their string of good health.