As stunning as the play of Josh McCown was and the development in Jay Cutler, by any measure, the biggest surprise of the 2013 season in Chicago was the upgrades on the offensive line.
In one offseason, Phil Emery and Marc Trestman plugged in four new starters: Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills. These four, along with returning center Roberto Garza, pushed the Bears from one of the two or three worst lines in the NFL to a top ten to top 15 unit.
The Bears improved from the 27th-ranked team in the league in pass protection to fourth, a huge move in Marc Trestman’s offense. The fact is they also went from tenth in the league running the ball to 16th.
The drop-off in the run game is attributable as much or more to the change in schemes as it is to the line’s blocking. But the Bears did struggle badly in short-yardage run situations.
It is also worth noting that the improvement was a lot more scheme than talent upgrades. As individuals, Bushrod, Long and Mills were all average to well below average. Garza was just above middle of the road and only Slauson was consistently above average.
A lot of the improvement also came from the fact that on 27 percent of the offensive snaps, the Bears deployed offensive tackle Eben Britton as a sixth offensive linemen. Britton actually graded out as well, or better, than all but Slauson and Garza.
The outstanding production is made all the more impressive by the fact that both Long and Mills stepped in as rookies and started every game.
It was also a huge boon to this group that all six starters (including Britton) were available for every snap of the season until Mills went down with a foot injury early in the final game of the season vs. the Packers.
For the season this unit earned a very solid B. Stats can be a little misleading and one of the reasons sacks were down as much as they were was scheme. Trestman preached to his quarterbacks to check down quickly rather than take a sack. The lack of physicality is another issue that keeps it from being considered in the B + or A ranges.
The big question here is the status of free agent Garza. In addition to being the second best individual performer in the group, he is a team leader and captain who made all of the line calls. He will turn 35 years old in March, he has had knee issues in the past and the Bears are stressed by the salary cap. With the re-signing of Slauson immediately following the season, the other four starters are all tied up for three or four more years.
If the Bears are unable to, or choose not to, re-sign Garza they will need a new starter at center. Taylor Boggs was the backup last year and dressed for every game, but he never took a snap and is an unknown quantity.
Kyle Long is an outstanding young man and wonderful prospect who made strides during his rookie year, but he also has a long way to go just to catch up to Slauson. You have to be happy for him being named a replacement in the Pro Bowl, but there are dozens of more deserving guards in the league.
The Bears also need to determine how far they can trust Mills. Finding a 16-game starter with your fifth-round draft choice is a coup, but the reality is he was one of the lowest-rated tackles in the league.
James Brown continues to be an interesting developmental prospect at guard and tackle, so depth on the line, other than at center, is not a huge concern.