There were plenty of roster-related messes for Bears general manager Ryan Poles to clean up when he took the job in January, but as an offensive line aficionado, that particular problem surely bothered him the most.
Not only was the offensive line in bad shape, but Poles had severely limited resources with which to address it.
He had to trade superstar Khalil Mack just to fortify his draft capital with an extra second-round pick. After the two second-rounders and a third-rounder, he didn’t pick again until late in the fifth. Meanwhile, he was preoccupied with tidying up the salary-cap situation to get the Bears financially healthy by 2023, so free agency wasn’t much help, either.
In the end, Poles assembled a mostly ragtag group with the intent of seeing whether any of them could solidify spots for 2023. With seven games left, none are certain. It’s still plausible that the Bears could open next season with an all-new starting five.
The Bears have been excellent in run blocking, but problematic in pass protection. That issue hasn’t improved much. It’s more that quarterback Justin Fields has learned to account for it and overcome it.
He had an average of 4.07 seconds from snap to throw against the Lions on Sunday, the most by any quarterback this season, but that’s him buying time rather than the offensive line providing it.
Fields has been sacked a league-high 36 times, and the Bears have allowed pressure on 28% of his drop backs — second-worst.
That isn’t going to work in the long term.
Teven Jenkins might have made the most convincing case. Ryan Pace drafted him No. 39 overall in 2021 thinking he’d be the Bears’ left tackle for a decade, but Poles and coach Matt Eberflus thought otherwise and tried him at right tackle.
Impressively, Jenkins changed positions shortly before the season started and adapted well enough to earn the right guard spot. That’s a success story for him and the staff because there was a point in August when this appeared to be a total loss.
Jenkins, by the way, missed practice again Thursday because of a hip injury and seems likely to miss his second game in a row.
Fellow 2021 draft pick Larry Borom started the first seven games at right tackle, then missed time with a concussion. While he was out, veteran Riley Reiff took his job. Borom played only on special teams in his return against the Lions.
Reiff was a free agent until the Bears signed him the day before training camp opened and he turns 34 next month — hardly a prototypical piece of any rebuild.
Age and salary might work against left guard Cody Whitehair, too. He’s 30, and the Bears would save almost $10 million in salary-cap space if they release him in the offseason.
Left tackle Braxton Jones was a fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah, so anything the Bears get from him is a victory, but they could certainly explore upgrades this offseason at the most vital position on the line.
Poles hoped former Packer Lucas Patrick would lead the line at center, but he broke his thumb at the start of training camp. He has played seven games and is on injured reserve for at least one more week.
Patrick played guard and center when healthy, but by his own admission was a letdown.
“Definitely not my standard,” he said last month. “There are some serious things I have been working on trying to work out kinks… What I was brought in here to do — I haven’t been playing to my standards, point blank.”
If everyone was healthy, the Bears most likely would have Sam Mustipher on the bench, but he has been starting at center most of the season instead.
Other than quarterback, this is Poles’ biggest project. And he might be starting from scratch — or close to it — after the season.