Among the deepest positions on the roster for the Bears is interior offensive line.
They have so many players with playing experience now and most appear interchangeable. So, it will make for difficult decisions when they line up in training camp.
And this makes for one obvious target on draft day on the offensive line.
The goal for the offensive line every year is to find the five best blockers, get them on the field and sort out the positions. Doing it this year won't be easy because of the depth they've amassed on the interior, and because of how their playing style figures to change.
Of course, it never is as simple as throwing out the best five onto the field. The tackle position requires a few more distinctive physical traits, like longer reach and great footwork. They can't just throw any guard at left tackle. So the goal in the 2021 NFL Draft will be finding a potential long-term or even immediate replacement for left tackle Charles Leno Jr.
The line must sort itself out after the addition of Elijah Wilkinson to the mix.
This one looks simply like a depth move because Wilkinson's play at tackle left plenty to be desired. Pro Football Focus graded him at No. 74 among 79 tackles it graded last year with a 52.4 score. In terms of PFF grades, it was his worst season and down a bit from 2019.
Essentially Wilkinson can play the same positions Germain Ifedi did last year, except last year Ifedi did it much better. He was graded by PFF the 35th best guard at 65.5. The Bears moved him to right tackle in their midseason line reformation, and at this spot he committed no holding penalties while allowing one sack.
So their right guard/right tackles are both reclamation projects, and neither one achieved consistent blocking grades in the middle or upper third of the league over an extended time like Bobby Massie did. For this reason, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears drafted a tackle for each side of the line.
Sorting through the line appears to be a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, all of impacted by the type of offense they plan to run in 2021. Here are the five major issues to sort out for the Bears on the offensive line:
1. Is Sam Mustipher returning as a starting center?
A major consideration might be which style offense the Bears pursue. If they continue running the bootleg action with quarterback movement after starting from under center, then Mustipher should get a shot at starting. He was effective in this offense last year. Considering the quarterback now is Andy Dalton, this would seem unlikely. He's not running all over the place with his back to the line of scrimmage and then reading only half the field the way Mitchell Trubisky did. It wasn't Matt Nagy's offensive preference until forced to use it, and Bill Lazor had never been a proponent of this style. The spread and the shotgun with inside zone running have been in the background of both Nagy and Lazor, and Dalton has experience working with Lazor. In this case, it would seem Mustipher might be headed back to the bench with Cody Whitehair resuming his center duties. It will be up to Mustipher to prove he can be the center using inside zone blocking on runs with plenty of shotgun snaps.
2. Is James Daniels moving to right guard?
If Mustipher does play, it means Daniels comes back from his torn pectoral muscle without a position, because Whitehair would be the left guard. Whitehair just went through the best season blocking he has had since his rookie year in terms of PFF proficiency. The most effective blocking came while he was at left guard. So, this would mean moving Daniels to right guard if Mustipher starts at center. How Daniels would do with a position switch for the first time to the opposite side of the line is anyone's guess. Would they move Whitehair, instead? It would make little sense to move Whitehair to the right side after he had been so effective at left guard last year. Playing the right side would also be a first for him.
3. Who can play left tackle besides Charles Leno Jr.?
About the best choice on the roster for this now is Alex Bars as a backup left tackle, based on some play in college at tackle. But this is an obvious area they must look in the draft. The seventh-round picks made last year both rate now as either guards or right tackles. Neither has shown enough to warrant elevation beyond third-string status. This is why they have to give strong consideration to drafting a left tackle early, maybe no lower than Round 3.
4. Is Germain Ifedi a right tackle or right guard?
It was almost unfair when they moved him to right tackle last year because the plan when bringing him from Seattle was to use him at right guard, and he produced at right guard without the big stack of penalties he'd accumulated in the past at tackle. However, he also played well enough at right tackle to warrant further play outside. With Massie gone, he's the best choice to play the position even if he failed at it with the Seahawks prior to 2020. Besides, there are other right guard candidates in Bars and possibly Daniels.
5. Has Alex Bars shown enough to warrant starting consideration?
Bars had a 55.6 PFF rating, which is at the lower end of the scale. If the decision is to start Mustipher at center, then Bars would have a shot at starting right guard because it worked well with this grouping last year. However, they must put Daniels somewhere and his blocking has been better than Bars' blocking even if it was all on the left side of the line. Wilkinson is new to the offense and projects as a swing backup player between right guard and right tackle as a the top reserve. He has extensive starting experience. When healthy, he started 26 games the last three years in Denver. At worst, he can be a spur for Ifedi and help prevent a backslide. Last year Ifedi became a much better and more consistent blocker fundamentally and the Bears need this to continue.