Bears’ Lines Improved, Depth Will Be Tested

When Ryan Poles was named Chicago’s GM, one of the first things he said is that the Bears must improve their offensive and defensive lines. A former guard, Poles knows that a strong offensive line is a key to a winning program, and new head coach Matt Eberflus will anchor his defense with the four guys up front on the opposite side of the football. While shopping the second tier of free agency, Poles added center Lucas Patrick, and defensive linemen Al-Quadin Muhammad and Justin Jones. He’s also counting on breakout campaigns from second-year tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom. The Bears’ lines have improved, but depth will be tested.

On offense, Patrick will be considered the anchor of the line and personal bodyguard of QB Justin Fields. The low-key signing might be the best move Poles made in free agency, but he might have had to chase one of the better available tackles if he didn’t believe in Jenkins and Borom. It’s still early, but the first-year GM likes what he sees of the pair so far.

“They’re working hard,” Poles said last week. “They’re improving. They’re taking coaching, so that is obviously a positive. If you are an O-line guy like I am, you know that we’re not going to be able to tell much about these offensive linemen until we put pads on.

“So I love the work they’re putting in. They’re doing everything right. They’re adapting to the new scheme. They’re changing their bodies. Everything that they’re supposed to. But listen, we all know upfront when the pads come on, that’s when we really see what’s going on.”

Line coach Chris Morgan echoed that sentiment after last week’s OTAs. He had Jenkins lined up at right tackle with Borom on the left side, and it appears that’s where each will be positioned once training camp starts. Obviously, nothing is set in stone until the real practices commence.

“Right now, it’s still way too early,” offensive line coach Chris Morgan said Tuesday. “It’s May. We’re not even in pads yet. Right now, we’re refining techniques, we’re introducing schemes, [and] everything is fluid. Just moving guys around, that kind of deal, and more technical right now.

“I definitely did [pre-draft] work on both guys when they came out [last year], and there are a lot of positives you [can] see now. Both those guys are working really hard. They’re coming along. They want to win. They’re willing to do whatever. It’s been a nice surprise so far.”

If the season started today, Patrick would be at center flanked by Jenkins and Borom, and veteran Cody Whitehair would be the starter at left guard. Things get a little dicey at right guard, where Dakota Dozier is lightly penciled in as the starter. Morgan had Sam Mustipher lining up with the first team during last month’s voluntary minicamp. Sixth-round pick Zachary Thomas might compete for the job, but it’s a little premature to suggest the San Diego State product can go from Day 3 pick to Game 1 starter in three months.

The Bears tried to sign restricted free agent guard Ryan Bates but the Bills matched his offer sheet, and that might come back to bite the Bears in the ass.  It’s probably safe to assume that Poles may seek a starter after June 1 cuts, or as teams trim their rosters to the 53-man requirement ahead of the 2022 opener. Another option is putting Mustpher at center, where he played the last two seasons, and moving Patrick to right guard, though Morgan would prefer not to do that. J.C. Tretter and Eric Fisher are available free agents who could give the Bears a plethora of options.

As far as depth, Poles added four linemen in the late rounds of this year’s draft and he’s hoping all can stick. Doug Kramer is a little small but should be a capable backup to Patrick. Braxton Jones was an intriguing pick out of Southern Utah and though he’s raw, at 6-7, 306 lbs he’ll at least turn a few heads. Julie’n Davenport, Dieter Eiselen, and Willie Wright are all depth pieces in a group that doesn’t look very strong on paper. Keep an eye on Ja’Tyre Carter, a rookie guard from Southern. Carter was a favorite of area scout Brett Ackley, and was considered one of the more intriguing mid-round guards by draft analyst Mel Kiper.

A rumor that DE Robert Quinn has asked to be traded was leaked Friday by CBS Sports contributor Jason La Canfora. It’s likely unfounded, as moving Quinn would tax Chicago’s front four, causing a multitude of position maneuvering and reliance on depth pieces that just aren’t ready yet. Last year, the Bears ran a 3-4 with Quinn, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Goldman taking the bulk of the reps.

According to Brad Briggs of the Chicago Tribune, Eberflus has said he wants to play his linemen in waves to keep them fresh and avoid the high snap counts you see on a lot of teams. Quinn and Muhammad will be the starting defensive ends with Jones and Khyiris Tonga working inside. Trevis Gipson was Chicago’s most-improved player last year and is expected to have a breakout campaign in 2022. He’ll rotate at EDGE, as will rookie Dominique Robinson.

Inside, the Bears have Angelo Blackson and Mario Edwards Jr. to spell their tackles. Micha Dew-Treadway and Auzoyah Alufohai probably won’t see the field. LaCale London was involved in a fight during OTAs that didn’t win him any favor with Eberflus. That makes the validity of the Quinn rumors suspect at best unless the Bears are thinking about bringing back Hicks or signing one of the available free agents, such as Jadeveon Clowney. Defensive linemen will get thinned out quickly in a room that lacks NFL-level talent at its fringes, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Poles looks to add to that mix before the start of training camp.

Additionally, the Bears will deploy a defense that is based on its tackles attacking upfield by shooting the gaps, and only Jones should be considered capable. Tonga is not suited to play a one-gap approach and neither is Blackson. Edwards Jr. could step up but he’s undersized, one of the team’s more undisciplined players, and draws a lot of unnecessary penalties. He’ll likely lose opportunities to play if he continues down that path.

Eberflus will be starting two rookies in the secondary after Poles selected Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker with his first two picks in this year’s draft. Baptism by fire is tough enough at cornerback and safety, so a solid pass rush will be key in keeping the rookies from being overexposed as each learns the nuances of professional football. If Chicago has another impact signing remaining, I would expect it to be at defensive tackle. Despite rumors to the contrary, it’s doubtful Poles will circle back to Larry Ogunjobi.

Potential June 1 cuts include Trysten Hill of the Cowboys who would probably start, moving Tonga to backup. The Packers may cut Dean Lowry after drafting DeVonte Wyatt, and Mike Purcell, who once played for the Bears and seems to follow Vic Fangio wherever he goes, could be a casualty in Denver.

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