Bears lay it on the (offensive) line for 2024 (2024)

In Ryan Poles’ final draft with Kansas City in 2021, as assistant director of player personnel, he helped fortify the Chiefs’ transitioning offensive line — which was arguably the biggest threat to their run as Super Bowl contenders with Patrick Mahomes after a disastrous performance in a 31-9 loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.

A former offensive lineman, Poles had a big hand in scouting two offensive linemen the Chiefs drafted in 2021 — Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in the second round (No. 63) and Tennessee guard Trey Smith in the sixth round (No. 226).

Humphrey in particular has been a masterstroke for general manager Brett Veach. He not only became an instant starter as expected, but has quickly developed into one of the best centers in football — a Pro Bowl player the past two seasons. Smith has been a dependable (starting 60 of 61 games), if flawed, starter since Week 1.

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In his third season as the Bears’ general manager, Poles’ role in developing the Chiefs’ offensive line is coming into focus as one of the key touches in the Bears’ rebuild — the offensive line.

Poles has impressively overhauled the roster he inherited from Ryan Pace, with key additions in wide receivers DJ Moore and Keenan Allen, linebackers T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds and promising draft picks — cornerback Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker, left tackle Braxton Jones, right tackle Darnell Wright and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, plus rookie quarterback Caleb Williams and rookie wide receiver Rome Odunze.

But there’s a long way to go, and a lot of questions unanswered. And after Williams — the ballyhooed No. 1 overall pick in the draft — the Bears’ ever-developing offensive line is arguably the biggest x-factor heading into the 2024 season.

As a unit last season, the Bears’ offensive line was a mixed bag. The Bears were second in the NFL in rushing, but 26th in sacks allowed per pass play — two statistics that generally (but not entirely) reflect on the offensive line. And quarterback Justin Fields’ rushing production and culpability for some of his own sacks play a part in both of those statistics.

Overall, the Bears’ line ranked from middle of the pack to the bottom 10 by NFL analysts. But even those analyses often acknowledge that the Bears have the makings of a much better line with natural growth of young players and better health.

It’ll be up to offensive line coach Chris Morgan to put it all together. But he has something to work with — a presumed starting five of left tackle Braxton Jones, left guard Teven Jenkins, center Ryan Bates/Coleman Shelton, right guard Nate Davis and right tackle Darnell Wright.

It starts with the tackles, as it often does. Wright was impressive as a rookie starter in 2024, but has to build on that performance. But his potential as a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player is legitimate.

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Morgan’s assessment of Wright said it all: “He can be a great player in this league and we’ve got a lot of work to do … in a lot of areas,” Morgan said. “The consistency part of it. He’s got a plan and he knows what to do and when we get back [for training camp on July 20], we’re gonna rip it. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Jones is the x-factor inside the x-factor. He’s been an overachiever as a fifth-round draft pick from Southern Utah in 2022, but could be battling for the starting job if he doesn’t continue to improve.

“He has a pretty detailed plan and it’s pretty cool to see his growth because he can actually add to the plan and talk through ways to attack the plan, which he couldn’t do in Year 1,” Morgan said. “It’s cool to see his growth. He know what he has to work on. And he’s rolling.”

Jenkins is the ultimate player of intrigue. He played at a Pro Bowl level pretty consistently last season, but missed five full games and part of another because of injuries. Jenkins, a second-round pick (No. 39) by Pace in 2021, is motivated to earn a long-term contract, but knows his biggest challenge is staying healthy — he’s missed 20 of 51 games in three seasons.

“If he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the better ones in the league,” Morgan said. “We’ve got a ways to go and he knows that. A lot to work on, but that’s a goal.”

Davis at right guard is yet another question mark. After signing a three-year, $30 million contract in free agency, he struggled last season following the illness and death of his mother, and also was set back by injuries in the preseason and regular season — playing just nine complete games.

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Davis was a non-participant for much of the voluntary offseason program and participated lightly at the mandatory minicamp, presumably because of injury, adding further intrigue to his status as a starter for 2024. Bates remains an option there, with journeyman Matt Pryor (24 NFL starts) in the picture.

“We’re all competing,” Morgan said at the end of the offseason program when asked if Davis was in a competition for the starting job. “We’ve got guys that can play that spot, and Nate’s a good football player. We’re really excited to get him back, get him ready to go and get rolling.”

But center is the one position that appears most up for grabs. Bates started 19 games for the Bills in five seasons, but only four at center. Shelton started for the Rams in 2022-23 but opted out of the final year of his contract and signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract ($1.75 million guaranteed) with the Bears in free agency.

“We feel really good about where we’re at,” Morgan said. “We think we’ve got two guys that are really good football players. Really good teammates. Really good leaders. We’re excited having both of them here.”

With what the Bears have on the offensive line, the biggest key to success in 2024 arguably is continuity. The Bears have used 18 different starting lineups and 42 different combinations in 54 games in Morgan’s two seasons as offensive line coach. That’s not a recipe for success.

“We’ve got to get five guys healthy. We want to get five guys healthy,” Morgan said. “And hopefully this is the year to do it.”

Bears lay it on the (offensive) line for 2024 (2024)

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