As practice started Friday morning and a capacity crowd was still filing in to Halas Hall, general manager Ryan Poles stood alongside coach Matt Eberflus watching the Chicago Bears offensive linemen 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 put players through their paces. For nearly 10 minutes, the top three men in football operations were observing a group that has been under scrutiny all offseason.
The line captured the attention of those in charge this summer. Sometime between the end of veteran minicamp in mid-June and the start of training camp last week, a determination was made that help was needed. It led to the signings of left tackle Riley Reiff, 33, and right guard/right tackle Michael Schofield, 31. Both have an abundance of starting experience, something you could only say about one player the team already had — left guard Cody Whitehair.
Center Lucas Patrick, the one veteran signed during the March free-agency period projected to start, is sidelined following surgery to repair his broken right hand. Teven Jenkins, who the previous regime hoped could anchor the left tackle position for seasons to come, is missing from practice. Jenkins hasn’t been on the field since Wednesday’s first session when he got some work as a tackle eligible in heavy packages.
Eberflus only would say Jenkins is working with the training staff and described him as day to day, declining to reveal the issue. Naturally, minds will wander to a back injury that led to surgery last August and sidelined Jenkins for the first 11 games.
Eberflus also declined to put a timetable on Patrick’s return but said Patrick potentially could be cleared by the Sept. 11 opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field. Patrick snaps the ball with his right hand, so that will make it more challenging than if he were dealing with an injury to his left hand. Patrick’s injury has led to Sam Mustipher returning center, which he played the last 1½ seasons after he opened camp at right guard.
It’s premature to say the Bears are dealing with a crisis on the line, but they did have four rookies running with the first team during portions of Friday’s work. While that is tangible experience for late-round picks, it’s suboptimal when it comes to protecting quarterback Justin Fields in a real game. So many moving parts also delay the team from finding a starting five and giving them time to work together.
“The continuity of it, certainly that’s a good point,” Eberflus said. “But adversity hits, and that was my whole response thing — how do you respond to it? A lot of things you can’t change in life, right? You get into situations and there they are. They present themselves, and how do you respond to that situation is all that matters.
“You can’t take a magic pill, you can’t just invent another player that’s going to show up sometimes. You just have what you have and you have to work through it and make it the best you can. And that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re trying to make the best combination. That’s really for all of training camp.”
Reiff and Schofield worked with the starters in team drills for the first time Saturday. Larry Borom consistently has been the right tackle.
Two weeks ago, seven-year NFL veteran Ross Tucker ranked the Bears offensive line 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 come through.”
That was before Reiff and Schofield arrived, so it’s fair to say the floor for this unit has been raised. Linemen on the street in July are not going to transform a position, but they can provide a level of 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 who perhaps leads to fifth-round pick Braxton Jones, a future draft pick or an expensive free-agent addition.
“I think (Reiff 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 by a considerable amount. These young guys they have might all end up being great players. We don’t know. But when I am doing the rankings, I have to go by what they have done so far or what I know of them — not their potential or how they might develop.
“I just couldn’t believe it looking at their offensive line. Whitehair is a solid player. Lucas Patrick is OK. I haven’t seen him a ton at center. He’s solid. But then I was thinking both tackles and right guard — to have three guys that are total unknowns or question marks? They were 32nd for me and by a healthy margin.
“Now getting Reiff and Schofield, and before the Patrick injury, they’ve got four guys that I know are competent NFL offensive linemen. I have seen them start enough games, play enough games to realize they’re not bad and they’re not going to get Fields killed. Whitehair is a little better than that. Patrick and Schofield are serviceable starting linemen. Reiff is better than that.
“So then they had one question mark and I thought out of Borom, Jenkins and Jones, there’s a pretty good chance one of those three will show they are good enough to be the other tackle. I actually think they are probably like 31st or 30th now. I moved them up a couple spots.”
The Bears have $26 million committed to their line this season, according to spotrac.com, the least in the league. So they are either going to get what they paid for or some of the younger players are going to show growth and exceed expectations.
Eberflus isn’t wrong that more practice time for the young players will only benefit them. All should be in line for a ton of playing time in the preseason, and things can change quickly when practices are in full pads this week.
“The young guys have done a great job,” Whitehair said. “They really have. They’ve really bought into the system, they’re really working hard to become a pro as fast as they can. They’re constantly asking questions, they’re constantly doing extra work, extra film study just to get that slight edge. I’m really happy with where they are and excited to see them continue to grow.”
With some veterans sprinkled into the mix, perhaps the Bears will find a combination that works. No doubt the focus on the group — from the top of the organization on down — will remain.