As practice began Friday morning and a packed crowd still poured into Halas Hall, general manager Ryan Poles stood next to coach Matt Eberflus and watched the Chicago Bears’ offensive linemen go through drills.
On the other side of the gathering of large bodies, assistant general manager Ian Cunningham watched intently as line coach Chris Morgan put the players through their paces. For nearly 10 minutes, the top three men in football watched a group that has been scrutinized all offseason.
The line attracted the attention of those in charge this summer. Sometime between the end of the veterans’ minicamp in mid-June and the start of training camp last week, it was decided that help was needed. It resulted in the signings of left tackle Riley Reiff (33) and right guard/right tackle Michael Schofield (31). Both have a wealth of starting experience, which can only be said of one player the team already had – left guard Cody Whitehair.
Center Lucas Patrick, the only veteran signed during the free agency period expected to begin in March, is out after surgery to repair his broken right hand. Teven Jenkins, who the previous regime hoped could anchor the left tackle position for seasons to come, is absent from practice. Jenkins hasn’t been on the field since Wednesday’s first session, when he got some work as a tackle, eligible in heavy packages.
Eberflus only said that Jenkins works with the training staff and described it as everyday, but declined to disclose the issue. Of course, thoughts will turn to a back injury that led to surgery last August and sidelined Jenkins for the first 11 games.
Eberflus also declined to provide a timeline for Patrick’s return, but said Patrick could potentially be vacated by the September 11 opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field. Patrick catches the ball with his right hand, making it more difficult than dealing with an injury to his left hand. Patrick’s injury has resulted in Sam Mustipher returning to center where he has played for the past 1½ seasons after opening camp as a right guard.
It’s premature to say the Bears are struggling with a crisis, but they had four freshmen running with the first team during parts of Friday’s work. While that’s a tangible experience for late-round picks, it’s subpar when it comes to protecting quarterback Justin Fields in a real game. So many moving parts also delay the team finding a starting five and giving them time to work together.
“The continuity is certainly a good point,” said Eberflus. “But adversity does come, and that’s been my whole answer thing — how do you respond to that? You can’t change many things in life, can you? You get into situations and there they are. You present yourself, and how you react to that situation is all that matters.
“You can’t take a magic pill, you can’t just invent another player that shows up sometimes. You just have what you have and you have to work at it and make the most of it. And that’s what we’re doing right now. We try to find the best combination. This really is for all training camps.”
Reiff and Schofield worked with the starters in team practices for the first time on Saturday. Larry Borom was the right tackle throughout.
Two weeks ago, seven-year NFL veteran Ross Tucker ranked the Bears offensive line No. 32: “The Bears have the potential to not only have the worst offensive line in the NFL this year, but maybe even have the worst offensive line, we’ve seen the NFL in quite some time when their young tackles don’t get through.
That was before Reiff and Schofield arrived, so it’s fair to say the ground has been raised for this unit. Linemen on the July street won’t change position, but they can offer a degree of stability as a bridge player. In that case, the Bears go from a stopgap in left tackle a year ago – Jason Peters – to another in Reiff that might lead to fifth-round Braxton Jones, a future draft pick or a expensive free-agent addition.
“I think[Reiff and Schofield]make a big difference,” Tucker said Saturday. “I ran the rankings three weeks ago and not only thought the Bears had the worst offensive line in the league, I thought it was a significant amount. Those young guys that have them could all end up being great players. We do not know it. But when I do the rankings, I have to base it on what they’ve done or what I know about them – not their potential or development.
“I just couldn’t believe it when I looked at their offensive line. Whitehair is a solid player. Lucas Patrick is fine. I haven’t seen him much in the middle. He’s solid. But then I thought about both tackles and right guard – having three guys who are completely unknown or question marks? They were 32nd for me and by a healthy margin.
“Now we get Reiff and Schofield, and prior to Patrick’s injury, they have four guys who I know are competent NFL offensive linemen. I’ve watched them start enough games, play enough games to realize they’re not bad and they’re not going to kill Fields. Whitehair is a little better than that. Patrick and Schofield are viable starting linemen. Reiff is better than that.
“So they had a question mark then and I thought from Borom, Jenkins and Jones there’s a pretty good chance one of those three will show that he’s good enough to be the other tackle. I actually think they’re probably on the 31st or 30th now. I’ve moved them up a few places.”
According to spotrac.com, the Bears have committed $26 million to their line this season, the least in the league. So you will either get what you paid for or some of the younger players will show growth and exceed expectations.
Eberflus is not wrong that more training time for the young players will only benefit them. Everyone should be lining up for plenty of game time in the preseason and things can change quickly when practice takes place in packed pads this week.
“The young people have done a great job,” Whitehair said. “They really have. They really bought into the system and are working really hard to become a pro as soon as possible. They’re always asking questions, they’re always doing extra work, extra film studies just to get that little head start. I’m really happy with where they are and look forward to seeing them continue to grow.”
With some veterans sprinkled into the mix, the Bears might find a combo that works. Undoubtedly, the focus on the group, from the top of the organization down, will remain.
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/07/31/column-when-it-comes-to-protecting-justin-fields-there-was-nowhere-to-go-but-up-for-the-chicago-bears-offensive-line/ When it came to protecting Justin Fields, there was no choice but the Chicago Bears offensive line — Orange County Register