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Bears and Matt Nagy have a lot on the line in 2020

With four starters returning from a disappointing offensive line in 2019 — and possibly all five — Nagy is hoping new line coach Juan Castillo will make a difference.

Bears right tackle Bobby Massie missed six full games and parts of two others because of illness (vertigo) and injury (sprained ankle) in 2019. Massie, who turns 31 on Aug. 1, will be playing his ninth season in the NFL in 2020, his fifth with the Bears.
Bears right tackle Bobby Massie missed six full games and parts of two others because of illness (vertigo) and injury (sprained ankle) in 2019. Massie, who turns 31 on Aug. 1, will be playing his ninth season in the NFL in 2020, his fifth with the Bears.
Jeff Haynes/AP

Germain Ifedi is unlikely to single-handedly invigorate the Bears’ offensive line in 2020. It remains to be seen if he can even beat out Rashaad Coward, and perhaps Alex Bars, for the starting job at right guard.

But so far, he’s the big upgrade for an offensive line that underperformed so badly in 2019 that the Bears fired line coach Harry Hiestand — arguably the most respected position coach on Matt Nagy’s staff. In fact, of all the Bears’ most acute needs in the offseason, the offensive line received the least attention.

Barring a surprise splurge to sign three-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Warford in free agency, the Bears basically stood pat with their offensive line in the offseason. They didn’t have much of a choice (perhaps one reason why the line coach took the fall). Center Cody Whitehair and guard James Daniels — both recent second-round draft picks — still are foundation pieces that weren’t going anywhere. And the dead-cap numbers on tackles Charles Leno ($10.3 million) and Bobby Massie ($8.3 million) made replacing them prohibitive even if general manager Ryan Pace wanted to make a change.

The right guard position, vacated when Kyle Long was put on injured reserve with a hip injury after five games, was the only spot available for an upgrade, and the Bears approached it modestly. Coward started 10 of the final 11 games in place of Long and seemed to get a foothold on the job. But the Bears signed Ifedi — a 2016 first-round pick by the Seahawks who started four seasons but was plagued by penalties and inconsistent play. Not exactly plug-and-play.

So can the Bears’ offensive line improve with virtually the same cast as 2019? That might be a greater anxiety among Bears fans than the quarterback situation.

Nagy is counting on new line coach Juan Castillo to make a big difference with essentially the same cast that Hiestand had. Maybe a different voice was needed, because it’s doubtful Hiestand forgot how to coach last year.

“I think Juan’s biggest strength is being able to teach and reach his players,” Nagy said. “You’ll see how he is when he’s on the field — there’s going to be times when he just chews their tails out; but then there’s gonna be other times when he’s giving them nothing but love.”

That sure sounds like a football coach. But we’ll find out eventually if Castillo’s manner has a bigger impact than Hiestand’s did last year. For now, Castillo is doing what he does best — and what every coach ever thinks he does best — teaching.

“Where I think [Castillo’s] at the top is in these types of sessions that we’re having [via Zoom],” Nagy said, “and when he’s standing in front of the room at Halas Hall and he’s teaching the details of the run game, the play-pass, the movements, protections . . . what we’re looking at personnel wise. I think he’s really at the top there. What I’m sensing is that our players are feeling that — that’s his strength.”

So can the Bears’ offensive line improve with virtually the same cast as 2019? Offensive lines are often fickle units that thrive on chemistry, teamwork and unspoken communication that often make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Until the Bears infuse their line with a first-round tackle or two, this line will have to get it done. Leno was in the Pro Bowl in 2018 as an alternate. Massie at his best is above average, but missed six games because of injury/concussion last year and turns 31 in August. Can either of them regain their peak form? Can Daniels and Whitehair take the next step? The Bears are counting on Castillo to make all of that happen. We’ll see about that. All we know right now is that he has got a big job in front of him.