First-and-10: Offensive line is biggest hurdle for Bears GM Ryan Poles

A lot of the Bears’ holes are obvious, but the offensive line is a little tricky. The Bears lead the NFL in rushing but are 31st in sacks allowed per pass play. With a key year for Justin Fields coming up in 2023, it’s up to Poles — a former guard at Boston College — to get the offensive line right.

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Bears guard Teven Jenkins (left) celebrates with running back Khalil Herbert (24) after Herbert’s 25-yard touchdown run in a 33-14 victory over the Patriots on Oct. 24 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Bears guard Teven Jenkins (left) celebrates with running back Khalil Herbert (24) after Herbert’s 25-yard touchdown run in a 33-14 victory over the Patriots on Oct. 24 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Bears general manager Ryan Poles has a lot of work to do during the offseason. Not only will he have to acquire weapons for quarterback Justin Fields, but he likely will have to overhaul the defensive line. This rebuild almost needs a rebuild.

But the trickiest upgrade of them all is Poles’ baby, the offensive line. Upgrading a defensive line that has 8.5 combined sacks on a defense that ranks 30th in points allowed and 31st against the run is obvious. Upgrading a receiving corps where Darnell Mooney’s modest 493 yards still leads the team, despite him missing the last three games, is obvious.

But upgrading the offensive line involves some tougher decisions and some astute evaluation. While the Bears are 31st in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play, they also lead the NFL in rushing (179.7 yards per game). Even excluding quarterback yards, the Bears are 10th in rushing.

• Rookie Braxton Jones, who has played every snap this season at left tackle, looks like a potential foundation piece, but can he take the next step — a big one — in Year 2 at a position at which the Bears need an elite player?

• Cody Whitehair has been dependable, but is he breaking down at 30 after struggling with performance and injuries this season?

• Lucas Patrick, signed last offseason to replace Sam Mustipher at center, never really got started this season and wasn’t very good when he played. Is he a keeper?

• Teven Jenkins arguably has been the Bears’ best offensive lineman this season. But with his history of back and neck issues, can Poles depend on him to start one full season, let alone several?

• Mustipher lost his job as the starting center to Patrick in the offseason and was benched at midseason, but he has shown staying power, starting 39 of the Bears’ last 40 games, and has played better in the second half. Can he start on a contender?

• Alex Leatherwood is a 2021 first-round draft pick Poles rolled the dice on by picking up his rookie contract. He hasn’t panned out this season but likely will be around in 2023. But in what role?

• Larry Borom is a 2021 fifth-round draft pick who started the first seven games at right tackle this season before going into the concussion protocol and eventually losing his job to Riley Reiff. He started at left guard against the Bills but was in a rotation with Dieter Eiselen. A starter in Week 1, he might be a versatile swing player. Has Poles seen enough to know?

It’s on Poles to figure it out, and his background as an offensive lineman is presumed to be an advantage in developing a line that not only is good but among the best in the NFL. So far, however, it has been hot-and-cold at best. And with rotations and injuries, the Bears’ line has lacked the continuity that can make an average line good and a good line elite.

The Bears have used eight starting combinations on the offensive line. They’ve made line changes 42 times. No combination has played more than 130 consecutive snaps this season out of 931 offensive snaps — Jones-Whitehair-Mustipher-Michael Schofield-Reiff — and that quintet includes two stopgap veterans in Schofield and Reiff.

But it’s still Poles’ first season. So like just about every other facet of the rebuild, the offensive line is all about Year 2. And like every other facet of the rebuild, Poles will have to be lucky AND good. No amount of salary-cap space can make that happen.

2. Did you know? No Bears offensive-line combination has played more than 149 snaps together this season — Jones-Patrick-Mustipher-Jenkins-Borom. That’s 149 of 931 offensive snaps — just 16.0%. By comparison, the Bengals’ starting offensive line played 96.7% of the offensive snaps together this season (945 of 1,041) before right tackle La’el Collins suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament Saturday.

3. With the Bears so close to meeting one low standard for progress in 2022 — Fields establishing himself as the franchise quarterback and still standing at the end — it’s tempting to sit him in the final two games.

But there’s merit to coach Matt Eberflus’ argument that there’s still developmental value to the final two games. And the Bears are facing the teams with the two worst defenses in the league, statistically: the Lions (32nd in total yards, 26th in sacks) and Vikings (31st in total yards, 23rd in sacks). Facing two playoff-contending teams with bad defenses seems worth the risk.

4. The Bears’ run defense dropped to 30th in the NFL after the Bills rushed for 254 yards on 31 carries (8.2-yard average) in their 35-13 victory Saturday. 

That’s new territory for Eberflus, who has been in the top 10 in rushing defense the last six seasons as defensive coordinator with the Colts (10th, second, seventh, eighth) and linebackers coach with the Cowboys (eighth, first).

We’ll never know if defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi would have made a difference had he not failed his physical after coming to terms (three years, $40.5 million) with the Bears in free agency. Ogunjobi eventually signed with the Steelers (one year, $8 million), who have improved from 32nd to sixth in run defense.

5. Even offensive lines can make a giant leap if you get the right guy. In 2017, the Colts allowed the most sacks in the NFL (56). They drafted guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall in 2018 — their only significant upgrade — and allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL (18).

It’s an extreme example — Nelson is a generational talent who is a three-time All-Pro player and a five-time Pro Bowl player — but one outstanding lineman can have a huge impact on an offensive line. But you have to identify the right guy and get him. Not easy.

6. Receivers coach Tyke Tolbert pushed back on the notion that the Bears overpaid for Chase Claypool. The second-round pick they gave up was No. 43 overall at the time of the trade. It is now No. 33.

‘‘It’s a good trade-off,’’ Tolbert said. ‘‘He’s a second-round pick [No. 49 overall in 2020] and he’s still young [24]. So, ‘cost us a draft pick,’ you can say that. But would you draft a receiver that’s better than him in the second round next year? I don’t know. I don’t think so. So I think it’s a good, even swap.’’

7. Early in the season, the Bears’ defense at least was better in the second half than in the first. Through seven games, the Bears allowed 35 points in the second half, fourth in the NFL. It indicated the Bears were making effective halftime adjustments.

But since trading defensive end Robert Quinn in Week 8 and linebacker Roquan Smith in Week 9, the Bears don’t even have that to hang their hat on. In their last eight games, they’re allowing 16 points per game in the second half — tied for 30th in the NFL — after the Bills scored 29 second-half points Saturday. 

8. Jaquan Brisker’s team-high fourth sack is the Bears’ rebuilding season in a nutshell: A rookie safety with four sacks is a building block. But that four sacks lead the Bears is a bit of an embarrassment. The Bears’ 18 sacks are the fewest in the NFL, and the defensive line has only 8.5 combined.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Smith had 15 tackles in the Ravens’ 17-9 victory against the Falcons. In seven games with Smith, the Ravens are allowing 12.7 points (second in the NFL), 284.4 yards (second) and 76.1 rushing yards (third).

10. Bear-ometer: 4-13 — at Lions (L); vs. Vikings (W).

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