It’s odd to think about it now, but on June 1st, 2013, Gabe Carimi and J’Marcus Webb were still members of the Bears. Carimi was traded to Tampa Bay on June 9th, and Webb was released near the end of training camp. Phil Emery overhauled 4/5ths of the offensive line this past offseason; only center Roberto Garza remained once the Bears kicked off Week 1 against the Bengals. The makeover was necessitated by what can charitably be described as “unacceptable” offensive line play, dating back more than a few seasons. From 2010-2012, the Bears allowed 56, 49, and 44 sacks; each year finishing in the top 10 in sacks allowed. In 2013, the Bears allowed just 30, which was just 28th.
That drop can be attributed to both the personnel changes and to a dramatic scheme change; Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer made a concerted schematic effort to protect their quarterbacks, often employing a sixth offensive lineman. (Eben Britton, who I’ll discuss below.) They were also rewarded with incredible continuity from the new group; no offensive lineman missed a play due to injury until Jordan Mills went down with a foot problem in Week 17.
With two rookies on the right side and two veterans (both now signed to long-term deals) on the left side, it’s now reasonable to view what had once been the teams greatest weakness as a developing strength; at the very least, it’s no longer a pressing concern. (The same can be said for the wide receivers; the fact that Phil Emery has demonstrated an ability to target an area of weakness and improve it quickly is one of the reasons I’m bullish on what the Bears can do to rebuild the defense.) Today, I’ll take a look at some of the exterior linemen on the roster, starting last year’s main free agent acquisition.
Jermon Bushrod, LT
Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances, Bushrod signed a 5 year/$36 million dollar contract with the Bears last offseason, and I think it’s safe to say it’s worked out nicely so far. Granted, the bar for the position had been set quite low, but Bushrod has stepped in and been an upgrade from day 1. First of all, he stayed healthy, playing all 1057 offensive snaps. He’s a big, athletic left tackle, and his ability to pull and reach the second level was a key to the success of a new offensive staple: the crack toss.
The other key to Bushrod’s value is that he’s just 29 (he’ll turn 30 next August) meaning the Bears should have the left tackle position competently filled for the next few years. Bears coordinator and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is obviously very familiar with Bushrod, having coached him in New Orleans. I’m looking forward to watching him continue to gel with the unit as a whole; considering I’d probably be happy with a repeat performance from Bushrod, I’d obviously be very happy if he continues to improve.
Eben Britton, RT
Britton signed a one year contract last spring. He was a second round pick of the Jaguars in 2009, and he was originally camp competition for J’Marcus Webb at right tackle, before Webb was released and the Bears decided to go with Jordan Mills. He’s only 26, and he certainly has prototypical size for a tackle, at 6’6″ and 310 pounds. Even though the Bears core starting offensive line started almost every play in 2013, Britton still saw the field for 235 offensive snaps; 47 of those coming when he replaced Jordan Mills in Week 17. The rest came when the Bears used him as an extra tackle; doing the math on the play counts, they did this approximately 18% of the time.
Britton performed very well in that Week 17 cameo appearance, and it will be interesting to see what the Bears do with him. Considering his limited playing time, I’m not sure a market will develop, and they could certainly do worse than having him as a backup, or insurance should Mills struggle to recover from foot surgery. Of course, if the Bears really like him, they could even bring him back to compete with Mills, who started strong but seemingly struggled down the stretch. (More on him tomorrow.)
Rogers Gaines, OT
Gaines signed a reserve/futures contract with the Bears on December 30th, the only offensive lineman among 11 players signed. What does that mean, exactly? In essence, that designation refers to players signed for the following season. Obviously, as the 2013 league year was still ongoing, the Bears couldn’t sign players who were already under contract. So reserve/futures players are either free agents or members of a practice squad. Teams sign players to these deals to get a jump on free agency, and to protect players the like on their own practice squad from being poached by other teams.
As for Gaines himself, he was actually on the Bears practice squad, having been there since September. He went undrafted in 2013, and spent training camp with the Baltimore Ravens. He’s physically enormous, at 6’6″ 334, and apparently a bit of a project. He hasn’t appeared in an NFL game, but this NFL.com prospect profile shows that at least some scouts saw potential heading into the 2013 Draft. Of course, the NFL comparison listed in that piece was J’Marcus Webb, and he wasn’t actually drafted despite the upside. In any event, he’s a big body who’ll be at training camp.