The following is the fifth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.
With four of five starters returning, the Bears offensive line hopes to pick up this year where it left off during the second half of last season.
Improved play from a reconfigured line keyed an offensive resurgence last November and December. Germain Ifedi was moved from right guard to right tackle, while Notre Dame products Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars were inserted into the starting unit at center and right guard, respectively.
In the Bears' first five games after making those changes, they scored 19 touchdowns and averaged 33.0 points. In their previous seven contests, they had mustered just nine TDs and averaged 16.7 points.
The unit—still led by Ifedi, Mustipher and veteran guard Cody Whitehair—no doubt will benefit from the return of guard James Daniels, an ascending fourth-year pro who missed the final 11 games last year with a torn pectoral muscle. The only position on the line that's guaranteed to feature a new starter is left tackle, following the offseason release of veteran Charles Leno Jr.
One player to watch in 2021 is Ifedi. In the spring, offensive line coach Juan Castillo told reporters that he wouldn't be surprised if the 6-5, 340-pounder was named to his first Pro Bowl this year. Ifedi played his first four NFL seasons with the Seahawks after being chosen by Seattle in the first round of the 2016 draft.
"Germain Ifedi is blessed with God-given talent," Castillo said. "My job as a coach is to get that out of him. I know that he hadn't been playing like that at Seattle. But I think he improved. He cut his penalties over half from what he had at Seattle. And I think everybody would say that if you watched the tape, he played square, which was his problem at Seattle, and I think he's just going to get better."
Mustipher originally signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He failed to survive the team's final roster cuts in each of his first two NFL seasons. But Mustipher was promoted from the practice squad last October and ultimately became the Bears' starting center in November after injuries to Daniels and Whitehair.
This spring, Mustipher was determined to get bigger and stronger—a goal that he accomplished.
"This offseason was all about gaining strength," Mustipher said. "I put on 10 pounds of lean mass, so it was a great offseason."
For the second straight year, Mustipher trained with former Bears center Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler in 13 seasons in Chicago from 1998-2010.
"I have a lot of people that I trust and there's a great group of guys that I'm able to train with week in and week out," Mustipher said. "And just being back in the facility with [head strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo] and the guys, that was critical for me. I like to eat and there's a lot of good food in Chicago, so that was definitely critical for putting on the muscle."
The Bears bolstered their offensive line this offseason by signing veteran free agent Elijah Wilkinson and spending two of their first three draft picks on tackles Teven Jenkins in the second round and Larry Borom in the fifth round.
Wilkinson played his first four NFL seasons with the Broncos, appearing in 45 games with 26 starts after entering the league with Denver in 2017 as an undrafted free agent from Massachusetts. After opening the final seven games at right guard in 2018, all 19 of Wilkinson's starts the past two seasons came at right tackle.
The Bears traded up 13 spots to No. 39 in the second round to draft Jenkins, a prospect many analysts had predicted would be chosen by the Bears in the first round at No 20.
The 6-6, 320-pounder was a versatile four-year contributor and three-year starter at Oklahoma State. After opening two games at right guard as a freshman in 2017, he started 10 games at right tackle and three at left tackle as a sophomore in 2018 before opening nine contests at right tackle and three at left tackle as a junior in 2019.
Last spring, Jenkins spent the entire offseason practicing at left tackle and started Oklahoma State's season opener at the position against Tulsa. But when right tackle Hunter Anthony was injured in the game, Jenkins moved to the right side because backup Jake Springfield was more comfortable at left tackle. Jenkins started the next six games at right tackle before opting out for the rest of the season.
Jenkins plays with a nasty demeanor that likely will endear him to Bears fans. Describing his mentality after the draft, he said: "My edge to me is about being able to finish anybody in the dirt. I don't care who you are lining up against me, I don't care what you earn against me, I don't care who you are, I'm going to attack you."
Borom possesses a similar edge, something he displayed while appearing in 33 games with 19 starts the past three seasons at Missouri. The 6-5, 332-pounder started all eight games he played in 2020 at right tackle after opening 11 contests in 2019—eight at right tackle, two at left guard and one at left tackle.
"As a player, I'm a mean, physical, dominant big person that's going to displace people off the line of scrimmage," Borom said after the draft. "I play with that demeanor and that chip on my shoulder that I've had since I was younger, and I'm never going to lose that."
Other offensive linemen set to compete in training camp and the preseason will be Bars; 2020 seventh-round picks Arlington Hambright and Lachavious Simmons; third-year pro Adam Redmond; first-year players Dieter Eiselen and Badara Traore; and rookies Dareuan Parker and Tyrone Wheatley Jr.