The big boys on the Bears got a new coach this season, and it paid off in a major way.
A few days after Matt Nagy was hired as head coach, he lured Harry Hiestand away from Notre Dame. Hiestand, who is in his second stint with the Bears, had an impeccable track record with the Irish. He was responsible for the development of some of the NFL’s best young linemen, such as Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey, perennial All-Pro Zack Martin, and rookie All-Pro Quenton Nelson.
Hiestand proved without a doubt to be Nagy’s most valuable position coach, as the Bears’ offensive line was tough, frequently finished blocks, and pass protected better than it had in years. It did not come without debate among fans about who should start where and a devastating injury to one of its leaders, but it played a crucial role in the development of its young quarterback.
These are my final grades for the Bears’ offensive line in 2018.
Eric Kush, G
Kush’s spot was all but handed to him after Josh Sitton was released in the offseason, and that proved to be a mistake.
He struggled out of the gate, especially in the Bears’ opener against Mike Daniels, the Packers’ dominant interior DL. They left him on an island against the Green Bay bowling ball far too often, and paid dearly for it. The Bears wouldn’t make that mistake again (more on that later), but they would make the mistake of starting Kush for three more games until he was replaced by Ryan Pace’s second round pick, James Daniels.
Even after he was replaced, Kush got another shot to claim a starting job in Week Nine against the Buffalo Bills. He split time with Bryan Witzmann, who was just signed off the street. By the end of the day, Nagy had seen enough of Kush, and Witzmann was the permanent starter. Kush didn’t see meaningful playing time afterwards, even becoming a healthy scratch in the playoffs, and has likely played his last snap in a Bears uniform.
Kyle Long, G
Long was Chicago’s pride and joy during the Marc Trestman era and the early years of John Fox’s tenure. An unpopular pick on the first night of the 2013 draft, Long quickly won over Bears fans with his fun-loving attitude and tenacious play and was soon known as one of the best guards in football.
However, injuries quickly took their toll and over the past few years, and Long has lost much of the athleticism that made him great. He mauled people in the run and screen games consistently, but after three offseason surgeries, he couldn’t keep up with quicker DTs in pass protection and allowed some poorly timed pressures up the gut. It was a devastating moment for both Long and the team when he went down with a major injury for the third consecutive year.
Long is now a likely candidate for release or a restructured contract (more on that here), because the Bears aren’t paying $8.5 million for a guard who can’t stay healthy for more than half the season. And even though the leadership and toughness never left, which is why he avoids the C range, he’s just not the same player.
As Matt Nagy’s starting center on the 2017 Chiefs, Witzmann had little trouble learning the Bears’ complex offense when he came to the team after Long’s injury. He wasn’t a great player by any means, but he certainly did well enough to keep the Bears afloat.
Witzmann’s best game, in this writer’s opinion, came against the LA Rams when he faced the titanic Aaron Donald for much of the night. While Donald didn’t spend a single play isolated against Witzmann (or anyone else; they made sure he didn’t beat them), the veteran guard kept him under wraps whenever he came in contact with the likely defensive player of the year. He utilized the help he had well and made life easier for a very shaky Mitch Trubisky.
He missed some pass blocks in the first Minnesota game and didn’t hold up well against Damon Harrison against Detroit, but once he got into the swing of things after his abrupt signing, he played well. Witzmann was not a liability, and that’s all you can ask of a street free agent.
Bobby Massie, T
Eating crow on this one. I advocated for releasing Massie and gunning for a replacement early in the draft (for full incorrect argument, click here) last year after a poor 2018 season, and I could not have been more wrong.
Massie responded to his critics by helping to stabilize the right side of the Bears’ line, as he was responsible for a mere three sacks allowed, per Lester Wiltfong Jr. of Windy City Gridiron (data is unofficial, based on expert film analysis). When he was beaten, it was usually via speed rush, for which he compensated by being rock-solid against power moves. He wasn’t great in the run game, struggling against a few outside-in moves, though it did not help that Chicago’s primary ballcarrier was not a threat to get the edge with consistency.
Massie earned a Massive (I’ll see myself out) extension, making him one of the five highest-paid right tackles in the NFL. I’m not thrilled with the price, but prospective replacements were few and far between. Extending Massie was the right choice and his improvements over the past year have been deservedly rewarded.
Charles Leno, T
Charles Leno Jr. won his division, started a playoff game, received his first Pro Bowl nod, cashed a $10 million paycheck, and got engaged in front of thousands of adoring fans and beloved teammates. And he produced by far the best reaction to his team trading for Khalil Mack.
— Bears Talk (@NBCSBears) September 1, 2018
Bears fans can thank Jon Gruden for many things but mainly this video’s existence.
So this was a solid year for Leno. He’s on the smaller side of offensive tackles at 6’4″, but he makes up for it with athleticism and footwork in the run game. Outside zone behind Leno has been the Bears’ most effective run play for a couple years now, but with Nagy not running that play as much as Fox did, he found new ways to utilize the mauling left tackle’s abilities.
Leno is what he is in pass protection – not great, but more than good enough to keep elite edger rushers off Trubisky’s back. He did manage to significantly cut down on penalties after a substandard 2017 in that regard. The Bears are going to need to improve in many aspects of offense, but left tackle play is not one of them.
It was a bit of a controversial move to make Whitehair the starting center over Daniels, but he rewarded Matt Nagy’s faith with a good season. He certainly had a head start on the competition (if there ever was one) by earning the complete trust of the franchise quarterback, who stood by him throughout camp and preseason despite concerning snapping inconsistencies.
Thankfully for the Bears, those issues barely arose at all over the course of the season. Without having to worry about poor snapping, he was nearly impeccable in pass protection, as Wiltfong only found him responsible for one sack. His run blocking wasn’t superb but it improved as the season went on.
What may have gone unnoticed about Whitehair’s job well done this year was how he helped his QB make checks at the line. The Bears were rarely caught out of position up front and they almost never slid protection the wrong way. Hiestand deserves praise for that as well, but it’s a credit to Whitehair’s intelligence and football acumen. He was awarded with a Pro Bowl appearance and is in line for a hefty extension very soon.
Leno and Whitehair were in Orlando last week, and deservedly so. But James Daniels was the Bears’ best lineman this season.
After inexplicably sitting behind Kush for three and a half weeks, Daniels got his chance against Tampa Bay and delivered in a big way. A few traits stood out about him throughout the season, and I explained how those traits make him special this morning.
OL grades are posting this morning at 11 on @TheLoop_Sports, so I thought I’d go back and watch some film of the #Bears’ best offensive lineman this year. And it wasn’t either of the guys who made the Pro Bowl.
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) January 31, 2019
Put simply, Ryan Pace nailed this pick. Daniels will be a fixture in Chicago’s lineup for years to come.
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