Merely thinking about the Chicago Bears offensive line is enough to make fans itch, but I swear there’s a silver lining around the dark cloud that is the group in the trenches. Even the folks at Pro Football Focus see it.
PFF ranked each NFL team’s offensive line heading into the 2020 season. And when it comes to the Bears, there’s a sense of optimism that the group can rebound after finishing the 2019 campaign as the 25th-ranked unit in the game.
And it’s not all that far-fetched: “The Bears have the pieces to rank among the top 10-15 offensive lines in the league,” writes PFF’s Steve Palazzolo. “but they need the tackles to get back to their 2018 form to go with progression from at least two players on the interior.”
Chicago’s offensive line was a fringe top-10 group in 2018. And since 2018 wasn’t all that long ago, re-capturing that form shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of insurmountable task – indeed, most of that group remains intact. Sure, PFF ranks the group as the 22nd best unit going into this season. But that doesn’t represent the true talent level the guys on the line possess.
So let’s talk about that ….
Cody Whitehair returns to center full-time in 2020, and that’s the most welcome news you’ll see on the offensive line front (unless the Bears unexpectedly sign a lock-down option at right guard between now and the start of the season). PFF grades Whitehair as one of the league’s best run-blockers, earning an 80.8 run grade since 2016 that ranks as the 11th best among interior offensive linemen. Perhaps if the Bears dedicate themselves to running more, they can take advantage of what they have with Whitehair’s run-blocking excellence.
James Daniels slides back to left guard, a position he excelled at as a rookie in 2018. And when he wasn’t struggling at center in 2019, Daniels earned a 73.9 grade from PFF when he played left guard — which would have ranked 5th among 39 qualifiers at the position. Based on the data, it’s obvious that Daniels – despite being a center by trade – appears better off at left guard.
Bobby Massie has a track record of being average, which shouldn’t be overlooked. There is something valuable about competence and a basic level of ability in protecting off the edge. Also, Massie played his best ball in crunch time last year. By doing so, showing that he can play better than the less-than-desirable 63.2 overall grade he posted at PFF last year. And in 2018, Massie allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits, and 23 hurries on pass-blocks and earned a 78.9 grade in the process. Massie is just one year removed from being a reliable right tackle. Let’s not lose sight of that. There’s talent there, but playing at a consistent level as he did in previous years is something Massie needs to re-discover.
Charles Leno Jr. was a Pro Bowler in 2018. But before that, his grades at PFF showed him to be constant, steady, and reliable. Again, there is value in being average at left tackle. Leno earned grades of 70.2, 70.1, and 78.7 from 2015-17, which proves he doesn’t have to play at a Pro Bowl level to be effective. It isn’t asking much for Leno to revert to his pre-2018 performance and get back to average. Doing so could go a long way toward lifting the rest of the unit.
This quartet represents a solid core. Two Pro Bowlers who don’t have to play at an elite level in order to be effective. One young offensive lineman on the rise. And one tackle who simply needs to pull himself back to being average. Heck, if Whitehair, Daniels, Massie, and Leno reach “average” levels this year, we’ll see the Bears go from the bottom third of offensive linemen to the middle-of-the-pack being their floor.
Ahhhh, but there’s that “but” we were alluding to earlier.
Getting back into 2018 form isn’t a given. Nor is it easy. These guys are a year older. With another year’s worth of tread on the tires. That means there’s also another year of tape on them, which gives defensive coordinators and line coaches even more stuff to work with when they create their plans of attack when they go after the Bears. All of this, and I haven’t even considered the question-marks at depth spots and the pros and cons of a new position coach leading the way.
And yet, there’s reason enough to be optimistic about this group — even if its most recent showing was no damn good.