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Sports Saturday

O-line upgrades can help Bears’ address QB quandary

So now the Bears are back where they were in 2018 — with an offensive line good enough to get them to the playoffs (albeit at 8-8 in 2020), but still in need of improvement to get to the next level. Do they know that? 

The Bears were sixth in the NFL in points scored, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns over the final six weeks of the regular season, with a reformulated offensive line of left tackle Charles Leno, left guard Cody Whitehair (65), center Sam Mustipher (67), right guard Alex Bars and right tackle Germain Ifedi.
The Bears were sixth in the NFL in points scored, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns over the final six weeks of the regular season, with a reformulated offensive line of left tackle Charles Leno (left), left guard Cody Whitehair (65), center Sam Mustipher (67), right guard Alex Bars and right tackle Germain Ifedi.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photos

The Buccaneers’ signing of quarterback Tom Brady in the offseason — and tight end Rob Gronkowski for that matter — deservedly drew the most attention in Tampa last year.

But those high-profile acquisitions overshadowed another key move by Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht — taking Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick in the 2020 draft.

It was a stroke of good fortune for Licht. Wirfs was projected to go in the top 10 as the best tackle prospect in the draft. He slid to 13 and it paid off big for the Buccaneers. Wirfs was an immediate starter as a rookie and one of the best tackles in the league.

For what it’s worth, Wirfs was the second-highest rated right tackle in the NFL behind the Browns’ Jack Conklin by Pro Football Focus — allowing one sack in 799 pass-blocking attempts, per PFF. By most accounts, Wirfs played at a Pro Bowl level all season.

And he was up to the task in the playoffs, including the Super Bowl, when the Buccaneers’ offensive line kept Tom Brady virtually clean — just two hits and one sack — in the Buccaneers’ 31-9 victory last Sunday.

So while you can’t expect Bears general manager Ryan Pace to acquire the greatest quarterback of all time when he’s searching for upgrades, there’s still a lesson to be learned from the Buccaneers’ rise from 7-9 also-ran to Super Bowl champion — first-round linemen make a difference.

Pace surely understands that. But he has yet to prioritize that in his six seasons as Bears general manager. In fact, he has yet to take an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft — one of only eight NFL teams that have not done that since 2013, when GM Phil Emery took Oregon guard Kyle Long 20th overall.

Pace, in fairness, has only had four first-round picks in his six seasons — he traded the other two to the Raiders for Khalil Mack. He has drafted three players in the first three rounds — Oregon center Hroniss Grasu in the third round in 2015, Kansas State guard/center Cody Whitehair in the second round in 2016 and Iowa guard/center James Daniels in the second round in 2018.

But regardless of whom the Bears start at quarterback in 2021, upgrading an offense to give his quarterback a chance has to be a priority for Pace. And after signing or replacing wide receiver Allen Robinson, upgrading the offensive line should top that list.

But there’s the rub. Robinson’s potential absence leaves an obvious void. But the need on the offensive line is a little trickier. It remains to be seen if Pace sees the same deficiencies with the line — and at the tackle positions in particular — that other observers, critics and many fans do.

The Bears’ offensive line turned into a disaster in the middle of the 2020 season. Daniels suffered a season-ending torn pectoral injury in Week 5 against the Buccaneers. Whitehair suffered a calf injury in Week 7 against the Rams and missed two games. And left tackle Bobby Massie suffered a knee injury early in Week 8 against the Saints and missed the rest of the season.

The following week, the Bears started one of the most jumbled offensive line combinations in recent memory against the Titans, with seventh-round rookie Arlington Hambright making his first NFL start at left guard; second-year undrafted free agent Alex Bars playing center for the first time at any level; and former defensive tackle Rashaad Coward playing right tackle for the first time in his career.

The Bears eventually settled the offensive line situation in Week 12 after the bye when Sam Mustipher returned from an injury. Mustipher, who began the season on the practice squad, started at center, which allowed Whitehair to move to left guard. Germain Ifedi replaced Coward and started at right tackle, with Bars starting at left guard.

With Mitch Trubisky replacing Nick Foles at quarterback, the Leno-Whitehair-Mustipher-Bars-Ifedi unit clicked — though the resurgence coincided with a break in the schedule in which the Bears faced four teams ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in total defense — the Lions (32nd), Texans (30th), Vikings (27th) and Jaguars (31st). In the re-formulated offensive line’s first five games together, the Bears averaged 151.4 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, with nine total rushing touchdowns. The Bears, in fact, were fifth in the NFL in yards, sixth in rushing average and tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns in that span.

It appeared the Bears had solved a problem from within, but they got a dose of reality in the wild-card playoff game against the Saints. The line protected Trubisky well enough (only one sack) but the run game was stifled against the Saints’ fourth-ranked defense — the Bears rushed for 48 yards on 19 carries (2.5 avg.) in a 21-9 loss.

So now the Bears are back where they were in 2018 — with an offensive line good enough to get them to the playoffs (albeit at 8-8 in 2020), but still in need of an upgrade to get to the next level. Do they know that?

“It’s an important position of focus for us,” Pace said in the season-ending press conference in January. “[During the bye week], Matt and I spent a lot of time on the board just drawing up different combinations of offensive linemen that we could put out there to get a better result.

“And I thought that was one of the things we were all proud of this year was establishing that lineup the I think really sparked our run game [with] better pass protection, for a variety of reasons — like same Mustipher stepping up, Cody stepping up at left guard, Ifedi unselfishly bumping out and playing well at right tackle. Same thing with Alex Bars.

“That was something that because of necessity kind of came together and I think we found out a lot about those players that’s exciting going forward.”

Nobody typifies the Bears’ offensive line quandary like Leno. A seventh-round draft pick in 2014 who has started 95 consecutive games over the last six seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 2018, Leno is a dependable veteran player who never misses a snap, grades out well and finished last season strong, playing next to Whitehair. But by the eye test, the Bears likely need a better player at the most important offensive line position to become a Super Bowl contender. Either that, or they need to be much better elsewhere on the line.

Massie is a likely salary-cap casualty and Leno could be as well. If the Bears find a quarterback, this could be the year they draft a tackle in the first round. It will be interesting to see how they address that issue.

“The offensive line is something we’re always going to look at and there’s a variety of ways we can continue to improve and it’s on us,” Pace said. “Every team is going to have these same cap constraints . And it’s on us to make the right decisions, get creative when we have to, make hard decisions when we have to and make sure we shore up that position in every we can can. And that’s what we’ll do.”