BOURBONNAIS — Because of all of the offseason publicity given to the Bears’ upgrades at the offensive skill positions, some serious questions along the offensive line have been overlooked. But the answers are coming into focus.
There’s been much debate about the Bears’ interior O-line since April, when they drafted C James Daniels in the second round and voiced their intention to move him to guard and let him compete for a starting job.
But a recent shoulder injury slowed any progress Daniels had made, and he’s been working at center with the second team this week. There was also early speculation Daniels could be left at his natural C spot, with Cody Whitehair moving from the middle to guard, where he played at Kansas State, but that’s not happening.
It looks as if Whitehair will remain at center when the Bears strap it up against the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 1, and he’ll be flanked on the left by Eric Kush and on the right by Kyle Long.
“Cody’s playing center,” OL coach Harry Hiestand said. “Kush is playing left guard. Kyle’s coming along really well at right guard, and Earl [Watford] is right there working on [backing up] both sides. [But] Cody’s playing center. That’s for sure.”
Daniels just recently returned to practice, and he’s gotten all his work this week at backup center. He’s expected to play in Thursday night’s second preseason game and likely will get his snaps at center. But, if he’s not a starter, Daniels will need to learn the OG spots as well, so he can back up all three interior spots.
The other pressing question on the O-line is the health of Long, who has had elbow, neck and shoulder surgeries since he last played in an NFL game.
“Kyle’s coming along really well at right guard,” Hiestand said. “For him, it’s getting healthy, and it’s the progression of getting more and more plays and getting back into football shape. He’s done a great job with his body, getting it ready. But then there’s no substitute for [being in] football shape. His plays have been gradually increased. [Monday] he probably had his most plays out there, and he has made steady progress. I feel good about the direction he’s going.”
Kush has started just five games in his previous five NFL seasons, including four with the Bears in 2016, so his ability to succeed as a full-time starter is a question mark as well. But Hiestand said the journeyman has made progress, and he’s encouraged by some of the traits he brings to the field.
“Toughness and strength and tremendous pride,” Hiestand said, when asked what stands out about Kush. “[He’s got] personal pride at getting his guy blocked. On a day-to-day basis, you learn what players are about, and he’s becoming a really reliable guy. There’s nothing he can’t do. It’s just getting experience at it and working with the other guys and [getting the playing] time. Time and work, that’s it.”
On the outside, the Bears have stability with Charles Leno at left tackle and Bobby Massie on the right side, but the lack of depth is concerning.
Leno has started 45 games during the past three seasons, and the Bears rewarded him last year with a four-year, $38-million contract extension. Massie has started 30 games in the two years since he signed a three-year, $18 million deal as an unrestricted free agent.
But seventh-year veteran Bradley Sowell provides the only experienced depth. He started twice last year for the Bears — once at left guard and once at right tackle — and nine times for the Seahawks in 2016. Next on the depth chart is 6-foot-6, 320-pound Rashaad Coward, a 2017 undrafted free-agent defensive tackle from Old Dominion, who is making the conversion to O-line.
“[Coward] played 75 plays the other night,” Hiestand said, referencing last week’s Hall of Fame game. “He has the body type and attitude to be a really good player. He just needs reps. We feel like we have two backups right now that need to improve and get better. But we feel good about that.”