As practice began Friday morning and still filled Halas Hall, general manager Ryan Poles stood next to coach Matt Eberflus to watch Chicago Bears offensive linemen go through individual drills.
On the other side of the big-body collection, assistant general manager Ian Cunningham studied intently as line coach Chris Morgan put the players through their paces. For nearly 10 minutes, the top three men in football operations watched a group that has been under scrutiny all offseason.
The line caught the attention of decision makers this summer. Sometime between the end of veterans’ minicamp in mid-June and the start of training camp last week, a determination was made that help was needed. He promoted the signings of Left tackle Riley Reiff33, and right guard/right tackle Michael Schofield31. Both have abundant starting experience, something that could only be said about a player the team already had: left guard Cody Whitehair.
Center Lucas Patrick, the only veteran signed during the March free agency period projected to begin, is sidelined after surgery to repair his broken right hand. Teven Jenkins, who the previous regime hoped could anchor the left tackle position for seasons to come, will not be in practice. Jenkins hasn’t been on the field since Wednesday’s first session when he had some work as an eligible tackle in heavy packages.
Eberflus only said that Jenkins is working with training staff and described it as day-to-day, declining to disclose the problem. Naturally, minds will wander to a back injury leading to surgery last August and sidelined Jenkins for the first 11 games.
Eberflus also declined to put a timetable for Patrick’s return, but said Patrick could be waived for the Sept. 11 opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field. Patrick throws the ball with his right hand, so it will be more difficult than if he was dealing with an injury to his left hand. Patrick’s injury has prompted Sam Mustipher to return to center, who played the past season and a half after opening camp at right guard.
It’s premature to say the Bears are dealing with a crisis down the line, but they had four rookies running with the first team during parts of Friday’s work. While that’s a tangible experience for late-round picks, it’s suboptimal when it comes to protecting quarterback Justin Fields in a real game. So many moving parts also delay the team from finding a starting five and giving them time to work together.
“The continuation of this is certainly a good point,” Eberflus said. “But adversity strikes, and that was my whole response: how do you respond? There are a lot of things you can’t change in life, right? You get into situations and there they are. They show up, and how you respond to that situation is all that matters.
“You can’t take a magic pill, you can’t just make up another player that’s going to show up from time to time. You just have what you have and you have to get over it and do the best you can. And that’s what we’re doing right now. We are trying to make the best combination. That’s really for the whole training camp.”
Reiff and Schofield worked with the starters on team drills for the first time on Saturday. Larry Borom has always been the right tackle.
Two weeks ago, seven-year NFL veteran Ross Tucker qualified the Bears offensive line 32: “The Bears have the potential to not only have the worst offensive line in the NFL this year, but maybe even the worst offensive line we’ve seen in the NFL in quite some time if their young tackles don’t show.”
That was before Reiff and Schofield arrived, so it’s fair to say the floor has been raised for this unit. Linemen on the fairway in July are not going to transform a position, but they can provide a level of stability as bridge players. In this case, the Bears are moving from a stopgap move at left tackle Jason Peters a year ago to one at Reiff that could lead to fifth-round pick Braxton Jones, a future draft pick or a pricey agent addition. free.
“I think (Reiff and Schofield) make a big difference,” Tucker said Saturday. “I did the rankings three weeks ago and not only did I think the Bears had the worst offensive line in the league, I thought it was by a fair amount. These young guys they have could end up being great players. we don’t know. But when I do the rankings, I have to go by what they’ve done so far or what I know about them, not by their potential or how they might develop.
“I just couldn’t believe it looking at their offensive line. Whitehair is a solid player. Lucas Patrick is fine. I haven’t seen him much downtown. He is solid. But then he was thinking about both tackles and right guard: having three guys who are total strangers or question marks? It was 32 for me and by a healthy margin.
“Now with Reiff and Schofield, and before Patrick’s injury, they have four guys that I know are competent NFL offensive linemen. I’ve seen them start enough games, play enough games to realize they’re not bad and they’re not going to get Fields killed. Whitehair is a little better than that. Patrick and Schofield are useful starting linemen. Reiff is better than that.
“So they had a question mark and I thought Borom, Jenkins and Jones, there’s a good chance one of those three will prove he’s good enough to be the other tackle. In fact, I think they’re probably like 31 or 30 now. I put them up a couple of places.”
The Bears have $26 million committed on their line this season, according to spotrac.com, the least in the league. So they will either get what they paid for or some of the younger players will show growth and exceed expectations.
Eberflus is not wrong that more practice time for young players will only benefit them. Everything should be online for a ton of playing time in the preseason, and things can change quickly when practices are packed this week.
“The young guys have done a great job,” Whitehair said. “They really have. They have really accepted the system, they are really working hard to become professionals as quickly as possible. They’re constantly asking questions, they’re constantly doing extra work, extra movie study just to get that little edge. I am very happy with where they are and excited to see them continue to grow.”
With some veterans sprinkled into the mix, perhaps the Bears will find a combination that works. The focus will certainly be kept on the group, from the top of the organization down.