This is the fifth in a series of Bears position breakdowns by the Chicago Football staff leading up to the start of training camp July 25 in Bourbonnais. For more Bears and NFL coverage, visit ChicagoFootball.com.
Today: Offensive line
Overview: When the Bears arrived in Bourbonnais last year, no unit had more question marks than the offensive line. Fast forward 12 months. With their 2013 first-rounder coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and their quarterbacks having been sacked only 30 times, the Bears expect their front wall to be one of their greatest assets.
For the first time since 2006-07, the Bears expect to return all five starters up front. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Matt Slauson, center Roberto Garza, right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills formed one of three lines in the NFL last season to start all 16 games in the same spots. The group gained cohesion as the season wore on, but also the trust of quarterback Jay Cutler, who had been part of too many “hit parades” in previous seasons in Chicago.
Although the starters are set, the NFL is a league of attrition, where expecting such good health and continuity two seasons in a row would be foolish. Thus, Bourbonnais will be a critical audition period for backups – centers Brian de la Puente and Taylor Boggs, guards James Brown and Michael Ola, and tackles Eben Britton and Charles Leno Jr. – at least one of whom is likely to play meaningful snaps.
Position battles: With Slauson missing the offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery, Britton filled in at left guard. But once Long and Mills joined Slauson on the sideline out of precaution – Mills is coming off foot surgery – Britton moved to right tackle, with Ola and Boggs at left and right guard, respectively. The odd man out was James Brown, two years removed from showing promise as a starting guard but a healthy scratch 16 times last season. Brown enters camp squarely on the roster bubble.
The de la Puente signing, at least initially, seemed like bad news for Boggs, but he showed some of the versatility offensive line coaches crave in the offseason. Yet de la Puente can also fill in at guard and, given Ola’s familiarity with coach Marc Trestman and quick rise up the depth chart after his June signing, Boggs also needs a strong camp showing later this month to enhance his job security.
Leno was fairly nondescript in the offseason, but his ability – paired with Britton’s inability – to play left tackle means the seventh-rounder (Leno) and sixth offensive lineman from a season ago (Britton) are relatively safe heading into camp. Leno seemed ahead of Joe Long and Brown on the early depth chart on the blind side.
Contract situations: General manager Phil Emery rewarded Garza, 35, with a one-year, $1.5 million deal in February. Emery locked up Slauson for four years and almost $5 million guaranteed. The moves ensured the Bears, who control the rights of Bushrod, Long and Mills for three more years, have the ability to return their starting five intact. Top reserves Britton and de la Puente are on veteran minimum deals, looking to cash in if they get extensive playing time because of an injury.
Keep an eye on: de la Puente. Signed to a one-year deal in April, the former Saint – who made 44 consecutive starts in New Orleans from 2011 to 2013 – is the wild card. He was signed to back up Garza, the glue of the unit and a locker room leader, but de la Puente is eight years younger than Garza and just as well versed in offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer’s blocking schemes from their time together in the Big Easy. The Bears have specifically stated de la Puente will back up Garza, but a strong camp from the newcomer could change things. If nothing else, de la Puente is auditioning for 2015, when a center vacancy is imminent.