You don’t have to squint too hard to see the upside in the Bears’ offensive line, and perhaps we’ll start seeing what that upside looks like as soon as this season.
Pro Football Focus started to roll out its previews of the best position groups in the league with the offensive line, and the Chicago Bears rank as the site’s fifth best group. This shows a significant leap of improvement compared to the 2016 season, when the offensive line rated as the third worst.
So, what’s changed? Here is Michael Renner’s explanation:
“Fifth might seem steep for Chicago, but at the moment there isn’t a better interior offensive line in the NFL. Left guard Josh Sitton, center Cody Whitehair, and right guard Kyle Long are all Pro Bowl-caliber players. The issues arise at tackle where Charles Leno and Bobby Massie have never proven themselves more than below average starters.”
If this preseason ranking feels surprising to you, you might not be alone – even though this leap toward the top felt like one of those things that could be on the horizon. The Bears’ offensive line finished ranked in the middle of the pack at the end of last season, which is better than what one might have expected after a season where three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Long went down with a season ending injury and eight different linemen started games. However, the building blocks for a better future were already in place.
Cody Whitehair put together the best season for a Bears offensive lineman since 2013, with an 87.2 grade was sixth best handed out by PFF last season. In fact, Whitehair ended up with the best grade of any Bears offensive player, and only linebacker Jerrell Freeman’s 93.8 grade topped Whitehair’s rookie season. But Whitehair is just getting started, as a breakout season could be in store for the second-year center, which could lead to some big years from some of the Bears’ skill position players. Next to him will be Josh Sitton, who made the Pro Bowl last season and was ranked as PFF’s 10th best guard.
Despite the success in the middle, the Bears are rearranging the interior of the line in an attempt to maximize production by swapping the left-handed Long to left guard with Sitton sliding to the right. Sitton played right guard from 2008 to 2013, starting 64 games and making a Pro Bowl in 2013. From 2009 to 2013, Sitton didn’t earn a grade below 84.4 – meaning that even in his “worst” season, he was still a well above average offensive lineman.
The one thing holding the line back is the offensive tackle spot, where the Bears did not attempt to make an upgrade via the draft or through free agency. Charles Leno Jr. enters the final year of his rookie contract, and will be motivated to earn a big payday with a second consecutive productive season. It was recently reported that the Bears hoped to re-sign Leno if the price was right and if his play proved to be valuable enough to merit an extension. Bobby Massie was shaky in his first season at right tackle for the Bears, so he has his eyes on proving he has staying power.
In the end, it’s safe to mark the Bears offensive line as a strength at this point in the season. And that must be music to the ears of Pro Bowl running back Jordan Howard and free agent quarterback Mike Glennon, who did his best work in a clean pocket.
Starting from the top of the list, the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Tennessee Titans are the only teams whose offensive lines are rated higher by PFF. While the Eagles and Browns are in rebuild mode, the Steelers were a playoff team, while the Titans were knocking on the door with a 9-7 record. All things considered, the Bears are keeping good company by landing in the top five here.