When the Bears hired Ryan Poles as general manager in January 2022, he came to Halas Hall envisioning a strong, mobile offensive line. Big guys who can move.
The focus during that first offseason was to take the offensive linemen who he and head coach Matt Eberflus inherited, and work with them to lower their body fat and increase their athleticism. Given the way Poles approached team building – tearing things down, first, before even attempting to build them back up – the 2022 season was always going to be rough.
Even in just one offseason, the offensive line improved its run blocking. The Bears led the NFL in rushing yards last season. But they still had a ways to go in pass blocking, and they still needed to find talent that fit their vision.
Flash forward a year, and the Bears have invested heavily in the offensive line over the offseason. Poles signed right guard Nate Davis to a three-year, $30 million contract in free agency. Davis had been a rock solid guard for the Tennessee Titans, who run a similar style of offense. Poles drafted rookie Darnell Wright out of Tennessee, with the intention of playing him at right tackle.
The Bears shifted veteran Cody Whitehair to center and pushed Lucas Patrick to the bench, where he could be the do-everything backup on the interior. That plan changed last week after guard Teven Jenkins went out with a leg injury, which should sideline him for several weeks. Whitehair moved to left guard and Patrick is back at center. The Bears also traded for veteran interior lineman Dan Feeney as extra insurance after the Jenkins injury.
So the starting lineup heading into Week 1 looks like this: Braxton Jones at left tackle, Whitehair at left guard, Patrick at center, Davis at right guard and Wright at right tackle.
“I feel better about our setup in terms of the guys in front of [Justin Fields], and the tackles, with Braxton going into year two,” Poles said last week. “Darnell’s doing a good job. That alone should help us.”
In terms of pass protection, there will be a microscope on Jones and Wright. The Bears are starting two young tackles. Jones played every offensive snap at left tackle last season, but is still only in his second year. Wright has yet to play an NFL snap.
If the passing attack is going to take the necessary steps forward, those two have to be rock solid. Fields needs time in the pocket. The QB knows how to run, but he’d ideally rather be throwing the football.
Patrick, the center, has high hopes for both of the tackles. Patrick believes Jones has taken “a leap that I haven’t seen from many players” from year one to year two.
“Braxton’s one of those guys that has a weird football IQ,” Patrick said. “You can’t describe, it’s hard for me to tell what he did in his rookie year that he can build on this year. Some stuff, he just gets. There’s people who just understand football.”
[Braxton Jones is] one of those guys that has a weird football IQ. You can’t describe, it’s hard for me to tell what he did in his rookie year that he can build on this year. Some stuff, he just gets. There’s people who just understand football.”— Lucas Patrick, Bears center
Jones is apparently one of them.
As for Wright, Patrick sees a rookie who doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Wright has leaned on the veterans around him.
“You try to rely on guys in the locker room, like Braxton,” Wright said. “He tells me, a lot of times, some of the stuff he had last year, and then I can help myself off the mistakes he made and try not to make those mistakes. But also, there’s a certain point you don’t want to be chasing ghosts, like a lot of what ifs. What if? What if? You want to just go out there and play.”
The time to go out and play is now.
Patrick will be the key to the interior this weekend. Poles signed him as a free agent in 2022 with the intention of playing him at center. Injuries derailed that plan. Patrick wound up playing only one quarter of football at center. He, instead, spent most of the season at guard when he wasn’t hurt. It didn’t particularly go well, either. He admitted last October that he wasn’t playing up to his own standard.
The hope is that he can be more of an asset at center, especially with veterans on either side of him. Davis missed practice Thursday due to a personal reason, but he returned Friday and the Bears expect him to play Sunday.
If Whitehair and Davis are playing at the guard spots, it should help mask any weaknesses at center. Even without Jenkins, this group should hold its own in the run game. Eberflus will want to establish the run first, and this looks like a group that can do that. If the Bears can take a lead, that will play into their favor.
Playing from behind – and having to throw the ball more – is where the question marks creep in.