Despite picking up a much-needed 24-10 win over the New York Jets Sunday, the Chicago Bears suffered a major blow in the fourth quarter when Kyle Long injured his right leg.
While most offensive linemen go unnoticed, Long has been a cornerstone piece on the Bears’ line since 2013. Fortunately, General Manager Ryan Pace has made some key acquisitions since 2016 to bolster the interior of the offensive line.
That offseason, the Bears drafted Cody Whitehair in the second round and claimed Eric Kush off waivers shortly before the start of the regular season. Both have been key contributors since.
Whitehair has shown versatility the last two and a half seasons to play both center and left guard at a high level. While he might struggle with snaps at center from time to time, he’s still one of the best blockers in the league. In fact, ProFootball Focus rated him as the fifth best run blocker in 2017 and sixth best in 2016.
Kush has proven to be a reliable super-sub with the Bears, capable of playing both guard spots and center. He filled in for Long throughout 2016 and earned a two-year contract in 2017 for his versatility. Despite missing all last year with a torn hamstring, Kush has started at left guard for all but one game this season.
In April, Pace added to the interior line depth by drafting James Daniels in the second round. Daniels, who played center at Iowa, competed with Kush for the starting left guard spot throughout training camp. Throughout the preseason, there were questions about what roles Daniels, Kush and Whitehair would fill entering the season.
Ultimately, Whitehair stayed at center and Kush got the starting nod at left guard. However, Daniels still has seen plenty of snaps this season, rotating with Kush on several drives since week 4. He earned his first start Sunday while Kush nursed a neck injury.
If Long is out for an extended period of time, it would be logical to keep Whitehair at center and cement Daniels at left guard. While Daniels might eventually be best suited at center, he’s spent most of this season playing left guard. Moving the 21-year-old out of his comfort zone would be a huge risk, especially since he’s a rookie.
Kush, who is expected to return next Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, should be able to slide seamlessly over to right guard to fill Long’s void. But who will back up those guys should one of them go down?
The Bears signed guard Bryan Witzmann to a deal during the bye week earlier this month. Witzmann started 13 games last season for the Kansas City Chiefs and is very familiar with Matt Nagy’s offense. The under-the-radar move could provide some much-needed stability in terms of depth.
The team also has offensive linemen Dejon Allen and James Stone stashed away on their practice squad. Stone, an undrafted center from Tennessee who has started 10 games since 2014, could be a viable option should the Bears need additional depth as the season goes on.
Given Long’s recent injury history, it’s no surprise why Pace has kept and added so many key pieces on the interior of the line. Make no mistake that Long’s absence will be felt both on and off the field. However, the depth should help soften the blow.