After beginning last season with four new starters along the offensive line, the Bears expect to return the same starting combination up front for the first time since 2007, the year after their last Super Bowl appearance.
The Bears were one of three clubs whose offensive line started every game in the same spot a season ago.
Thus, it’s the first time in recent memory that targeting offensive linemen in the draft isn’t a top priority.
No one along the front wall is more entrenched than left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who in 2013 stabilized the blind side of Jay Cutler (and Josh McCown) after receiving almost $18 million guaranteed as part of a five-year pact last spring. Bushrod is a notch below the NFL’s elite left tackles, but offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer’s former pupil in New Orleans is a terrific fit with the Bears and a massive upgrade over anything else they’ve had at the position in recent memory.
Jordan Mills, selected in the fifth round (163rd overall) last April, led the NFL in performance-based pay after playing in more than 70 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps as the starting right tackle. Mills experienced his share of struggles as a rookie – especially handling speed rushers off the edge – but he’s a tireless worker and one who should benefit from having a full offseason to work on his technique.
The Bears re-signed veteran Eben Britton, whose primary role last season was as an extra offensive tackle in heavy formations. A former second-round pick, Britton is a valuable depth player who can fill in on the right side if needed.
The Bears also have an interesting jar on the shelf in Joe Long, plucked off the Steelers’ practice squad by general manager Phil Emery late last season. The brother of former All-Pro Jake Long, Joe Long is just 24, and offers intriguing length and versatility.
Of course, we must also mention another Long, 2013 rookie stud Kyle, who was terrific at right guard but could have a future at left tackle because of his rare athleticism.
Indeed, Emery has upgraded the talent level at tackle, but Mills took enough lumps as a rookie that the Bears could make him compete for the starting spot. Kyle Long is the prototype for what Emery will be searching for in the draft: a superior athlete with versatility and room to grow.
Kromer employs a zone-blocking scheme, which requires offensive linemen who have the foot speed to quickly reach second-level defenders and the intelligence and awareness to understand angles and work in concert with other linemen.
Emery’s aggressive offseason suggests the Bears are all in for 2014, meaning they’ll likely covet immediate help on defense in the first couple of rounds. The first opportunity to pounce on offensive tackles could be in Mills’ territory a season ago, fifth round and beyond. With starters in place, the Bears could be more inclined to acquire developmental prospects.
Former Boise State tackle and Shea McClellin teammate Charles Leno Jr. could be a target for Emery in the same area Mills was selected last year. McClellin has struggled to make the transition to the pros, but Leno has the type of raw athletic traits Emery loves.
He also started on both sides in college and could be an intriguing project for Kromer to develop.
Wesley Johnson, who started all 51 games at Vanderbilt, has the SEC pedigree Emery loves and outstanding movement skills. He’s undersized but boasts the versatility and smarts to be an intriguing fit for the Bears in the fifth or sixth round.
Remember, the Bears do not have a selection in the final round next month, but Emery has an extra sixth-rounder as trade ammunition to trade down and procure extra picks. Charles Siddoway, Kevin Pamphile and Matt Pachan could be targets in the final round or as priority free agents.