As practice began Friday morning and a crowd of spectators still gathered inside Hallas Hall, general manager Ryan Powles stood by coach Matt Eberfluss and watched the Chicago Bears’ linebackers go through individual drills.
On the other side of the collection of big bodies, assistant general manager Ian Cunningham studied intently as line coach Chris Morgan checked players. For nearly 10 minutes, the top three in football operations watched a group that has been under scrutiny all offseason.
The line caught the attention of executives this summer. Sometime between the end of veteran minicamp in mid-June and the start of training camp last week, the decision was made that help was needed. This led to the signing left tackle Riley Reiff33 and right guard/right tackle Michael Schofield31. Both have plenty of starting experience, which can be said of only one player the team has already had — left guard Cody Whitehair.
Center Lucas Patrick, the only veteran signing during the March free agency period set to begin after surgery to repair a broken right arm. Taven Jenkins, who the previous regime hoped could lock down the left tackle position for the next few seasons, is absent from practice. Jenkins hasn’t been on the field since Wednesday’s first session, when he got some work as an eligible tackle in tight end packages.
Eberfluss said only that Jenkins is working with the training staff and described him as day-to-day, declining to elaborate on the issue. Naturally, minds will wander to a back injury that led to surgery last August and singled Jenkins through the first 11 games.
Eberfluss also declined to give a timetable for Patrick’s return, but said Patrick could potentially be released before the Sept. 11 game against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field. Patrick snaps the ball right-handed, so it will be more difficult than if he was dealing with a left-hand injury. Patrick’s injury sent Sam Mustifer back to center, where he has played the past 1½ seasons after opening camp at right guard.
It’s too early to say the Bears are dealing with a crisis on the line, but they had four starters running with the first team during parts of Friday’s work. While that’s tangible experience for a late-round pick, it’s not optimal when it comes to protecting quarterback Justin Fields in an actual game. So many moving parts also delays the team in finding a starting five and gives them time to work together.
“Definitely the continuity of it is good,” Eberfluss said. “But adversity happens, and that was my whole thing — how do you react to that? A lot of things you can’t change in life, right? You get into situations and there they are. They represent themselves, and the main thing is how you react to this situation.
“You can’t take a magic pill, you can’t just invent another player to come along sometimes. You just have what you have and you have to work at it and make the best of it. And that’s what we’re doing now. We try to make the best combination. It’s really for the whole training camp.”
Reiff and Schofield worked with the starters for the first time in team drills on Saturday. Larry Boram was consistently the right way.
Two weeks ago, seven-year NFL veteran Ross Tucker ranked the Bears offensive line on the 32nd: “The Bears have the potential to not only have the worst offensive line in the NFL this year, but maybe even the worst offensive line we’ve seen in the NFL in quite some time if their young tackles don’t succeed.”
This was before Rafe and Schofield arrived, so it’s fair to say the floor was raised for this unit. The linemen on the street aren’t going to change positions in July, but they can provide stability as bridge players. In this case, the Bears go from one stopgap measure at left tackle a year ago — Jason Peters — to another in Reiff, possibly leading to a fifth-round pick in Braxton Jones, a future draft pick or an expensive free-agent addition.
“I think (Reif and Schofield) make a huge difference,” Tucker said Saturday. “I did the rankings three weeks ago and not only did I think the Bears had the worst offensive line in the league, I thought it was a significant number. All these young guys they have can be great players. We don’t know. But when I’m ranking, I have to focus on what they’ve done so far, or what I know about them, not their potential or how they can develop.
“I just couldn’t believe it, looking at their offensive line. Whitehair is a solid player. Lucas Patrick is fine. I didn’t see him in the center. He is solid. But then I thought that both the tackles and the right guard — to have three guys who are complete unknowns or question marks? They were 32 for me and by a healthy margin.
“Now we have Rafe and Schofield, and before Patrick’s injury, they have four guys that I know are competent NFL offensive linemen. I’ve seen them start enough games, play enough games to know they’re not bad and they’re not going to kill Fields. Whitehair is a little better than that. Patrick and Schofield are serviceable starting linemen. Reiff is better than that.
“So they had one question mark, and I thought with Borham, Jenkins and Jones there was a pretty good chance that one of those three would show they were good enough to be the second pick. I actually think they are probably on the 31st or 30th now. I moved them up a couple of places.”
The Bears committed $26 million to their line this season spotrac.com, fewest in the league. So either they get what they paid for or some of the younger players show growth and exceed expectations.
Eberflus is not wrong that more training time for young players will only benefit them. All should be in line for a ton of playing time in the preseason, and things could change quickly when practices are full this week.
“The young guys did a great job,” Whitehair said. “They really have. They’re really into the system, they’re really working hard to become professionals as quickly as possible. They’re constantly asking questions, they’re constantly doing extra work, extra film study to get that little edge. I’m very happy with where they are and excited to see them continue to grow.”
With some veterans sprinkled into the mix, maybe the Bears can find a combination that works. Without a doubt, the emphasis on the group – from the top of the organization down – will remain.