When Bears offensive line coach Juan Castillo said right tackle Germain Ifedi could make the Pro Bowl this season, Ifedi knows what people were thinking.
‘‘Those were bold statements, which people kind of raised an eyebrow at, which is fine,’’ Ifedi said. ‘‘But when he told me [that], I was like: ‘Yeah, I’m with you. I don’t think that’s unattainable.’ I think we are right there. I think I have all the tools. We just have to do it and do it every day.’’
Castillo’s high hopes for a former first-round draft pick whose career has been marked more by penalties and underachievement than by Pro Bowl consideration epitomizes the state of the Bears’ offensive line heading into the season.
With what should be a solid interior with guards Cody Whitehair and James Daniels and center Sam Mustipher, the Bears need their tackles — probably Jason Peters and Ifedi — to be upgrades over Charles Leno and Bobby Massie. If that happens, the Bears might have their best offensive line in years. If not, it likely means big trouble for coach Matt Nagy and his hopes of taking the Bears’ offense to another level this season.
Ifedi, 27, isn’t the most likely candidate to make a sudden jump to prominence, but he isn’t the least likely, either. Still, his career as a tackle seemed in doubt when the Seahawks let him go in free agency after three seasons as a starter. And when the Bears signed him, they put him at right guard, claiming guard was his best position.
As it turned out, Ifedi was better at tackle last season. He played the final six games at right tackle in place of Rashaad Coward, who had replaced the injured Massie. Ifedi, who had 43 penalties — including 17 for holding — in his three seasons at tackle with the Seahawks, had just four penalties last season, only one of them for holding.
It convinced the Bears they might have something. They cut Leno and Massie and drafted Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins in the second round to replace Leno. That left Castillo counting on Ifedi to fill Massie’s old spot.
‘‘I don’t want to make predictions, but I would not be surprised if this kid made the Pro Bowl next year,’’ Castillo said of Ifedi after the draft.
Ifedi missed the first 26 days of training camp with a hip injury suffered during the pre-camp conditioning exam. He returned Monday, ready to live up to Castillo’s lofty hopes.
‘‘It’s inspiring, but it speaks to the way he’s seen me work, the way he knows I work, the way I’m wired and the player I can be,’’ Ifedi said. ‘‘It’s cool to have the coach have confidence in you. I’m going to keep feeding that confidence and showing him that he was right to say those things.’’
It wouldn’t be unheard-of. Last season, Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles made the All-Pro team after three disappointing seasons since being drafted in the first round. Like Ifedi, penalties were a major issue. He committed 46 penalties in his first three seasons, 33 of them for holding, including four in one nightmarish game against Khalil Mack and the Bears in 2019.
The Broncos declined Bolles’ fifth-year option and made him battle Elijah Wilkinson — now with the Bears — for the starting job in 2020. Bolles responded with a huge season, cutting his penalties to seven (four for holding), and signed a four-year, $68 million contract extension with $38 million guaranteed.
Ifedi started in the NFL a year before Bolles but is two years younger. Who knows what it is that makes it click for struggling young NFL linemen? But whether it’s coaching, chemistry or just good luck, that’s the kind of player development the Bears need to take their offensive line to an unexpected level.