Harry Hiestand’s arrival in Chicago as the Bears’ offensive line coach didn’t generate too much fanfare when it was announced in January of 2018.
At least, not as much as it should have. You would think that Matt Nagy’s best and most important assistant coaching hire – and I’m very much including retaining Vic Fangio and hiring Chuck Pagano – would have met more praise and celebration. But Hiestand, who formerly held the same position with Notre Dame and is in his second stint with the Bears, quietly worked magic with Chicago’s front five, especially in pass production.
He returns, along with each of the Bears’ starting five (albeit with some shifting positional responsibilities), to try and build on last year’s success and improve in some of the areas in which the unit was subpar. Here is a complete preview of one of my favorite positions to analyze, break down, and discuss: the offensive line.
Projected Depth Chart
Starters (from left to right): Charles Leno Jr, Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie
Backups: Ted Larsen, Rashaad Coward, TJ Clemmings, Jordan McCray, Cornelius Lucas, Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, Joe Lowery, Blake Blackmar, Marquez Tucker
As far as the first five are concerned, there are no new faces up front this year. Leno returns on one of Ryan Pace’s more team-friendly contracts as an above-average starting left tackle at an affordable rate. While he came into the league with concerns about his size, he more than compensates with athleticism and intelligence, especially in the run game. The other bookend is Massie, who proved me wrong in his contract year after a rough 2017 and earned an extension, which he was given in February.
In the middle, we have Whitehair and Daniels, two young and powerful interior linemen who switched positions after both had solid to great seasons in 2018 (more on that later). Long returns as well – he’s the second longest-tenured Chicago Bear – on a restructured deal that he himself reportedly initiated. He has well-documented injury issues over the past couple years, but healthy or not, his presence in the locker room as a veteran leader has been greatly appreciated by the Bears, who have become increasingly youthful over his time with the club.
The bench, on the other hand, has been renovated. Gone are Bryan Witzmann (Cleveland), Eric Kush (also Cleveland) and Bradley Sowell (still Chicago but he’s a tight end now). Instead, Larsen is back with the Bears and he will be the first guard or center off the bench. He has some starting experience but is best used in the super-sub role, where he can generally be trusted to provide solid play in a pinch. Coward is a converted D-lineman who the team likes enough to slide into the swing tackle role entering camp, but they signed the ex-Viking Clemmings as competition.
Behind them are two journeymen (McCray and Lucas) and a collection of undrafted free agents. The most noteworthy among them are Bars and Mustipher, who both played under Hiestand at Notre Dame. Bars has especially piqued fans’ interest as someone who would have been drafted and even may have been a mid-round pick had he not succumbed to injury midway through his final year in South Bend. He’s a candidate to redshirt his rookie year under the Bears’ control, but he’ll certainly be a name to watch in Bourbonnais.
Key Training Camp Battle: Coward vs. Clemmings for the swing tackle job
It’s the hope of Nagy and Hiestand that Coward wins this job, and my theory is that Sowell’s move to tight end indicates confidence in the big man out of Old Dominion. Clemmings has been a starter before, but by all accounts he was one of the worst starters in football. Even if Coward does impress in camp and preseason, the Bears can’t feel great that if Leno goes down, Mitch Trubisky‘s blindside protector will have been a defensive lineman just two years ago.
I trust Hiestand’s judgment much, much more than my own, but even he must admit that this is a somewhat troubling situation.
Keys to Success
1. A Long stretch of health
When Long and Daniels were on the field together, the Bears averaged 8.5 yards per passing attempt (including sacks) and 5.2 yards per carry. By comparison, the best team in a league averaged 8.1 and 5.1, respectively (stats courtesy of DaBearsBlog’s Johnathan Wood). A small sample size alert is very much in play but those numbers are striking.
The “on the field together” part is also very much in question, which is why it’s imperative that Long has his first healthy season in a very long time. This is a key that is out of Long’s control, as his injuries have mostly been an ankle rolled here or a leg stuck under a pile at an awkward angle there, but if he can remain injury-free, it would do wonders for the offense.
2. Backs to the future
Was the Bears’ offensive line a very good run-blocking team last season? By no means – Damon Harrison and Fletcher Cox come to mind as dominant players who dominated Long, Daniels, Whitehair, and Witzmann – but Jordan Howard (and sometimes Tarik Cohen, when he’d try to get more than was there) did not help them out in the slightest, as I explained in a recent video film breakdown.
Mike Davis and David Montgomery are here now, as is a (hopefully) wiser Cohen, and the line should be better for it. Both should be quicker to holes that Howard may have not seen or not have the immediate acceleration to hit, and both – especially Montgomery – should break more tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. These are more modern backs, hence the terrible, terrible pun, and the line should look better as a result.
3. There’s a new center
Daniels’s natural position is center, and Whitehair’s is indeed guard, which is why they will begin camp and almost certainly begin the regular season at those respective spots. The Bears believe that Whitehair is a better fit to focus exclusively on mauling people and that Daniels’s mental acumen would be better suited to make line calls and communicate with Trubisky – both major responsibilities of the center position.
That relationship between Daniels and Trubisky is going to be crucial going forward, as the Bears’ signal caller had a well-documented excellent rapport with Whitehair. Could this move see both former second-round picks see their full, and massive, potential? Yes, but there’s also an argument that you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. Whitehair was a pro bowl center and you could argue that Daniels deserved the nod more than him for his work at guard. Again, I trust Hiestand to make the right call, and the switch was his decision, but it’s something to monitor heading into the team’s time at Bourbonnais.