Breaking down the Chicago Bears' offensive line

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bears center Cody Whitehair, right, seen here celebrating with tight end Daniel Brown, has been a big positive to an offensive line that ranked 8th in fewest sacks allowed this season.

    Chicago Bears center Cody Whitehair, right, seen here celebrating with tight end Daniel Brown, has been a big positive to an offensive line that ranked 8th in fewest sacks allowed this season.

 
 
Updated 1/8/2017 6:30 PM

The criticism of the Bears' offensive line, and specifically the tackles, was unwarranted given their play in 2016. The O-line could turn out to be a team strength next season.

Despite injuries in 2016 the Bears were No. 8 in fewest sacks allowed, even though they used three starting quarterbacks, including Matt Barkley, who had never started an NFL game prior to Nov. 27.

 

And running the football was something the Bears did with great efficiency. Only three teams averaged more yards per carry than the Bears, who gained an average of 4.6 yards per attempt.

That begs the question: Why did only six teams run the ball fewer times than the Bears? Coach John Fox has repeatedly attempted to explain that away by saying early deficits forced the Bears to abandon the ground game.

It was a poor explanation then, and it's worse in hindsight. In 11 of their first 12 defeats, the Bears were no more than two possessions away from tying the game in the fourth quarter. Six of their losses were by 6 points or less.

In the Bears' three victories, they averaged 33 running plays per game. In their first 12 losses, they averaged 20.5 running plays.

The problem on offense was not the offensive line, but the offensive play-calling. Looking ahead to next season and a return to health, the offensive line could be the foundation to a resurgence in 2017.

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Guard Kyle Long, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, played just eight games before he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery. And he was far less than 100 percent in the games he did play because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Center Hroniss Grasu, a third-round pick in 2015, was penciled in as the starter until a torn ACL in training camp ended his season. But Grasu's injury paved the way for the Bears to move 2016 second-round draft pick Cody Whitehair from guard to center, where he was brilliant. Unless the Bears move Whitehair back to guard, Grasu has lost his job. But he could provide solid depth at center, much as Ted Larsen did at guard when Long was lost at midseason.

"He's been working here (at Halas Hall) hard every day," general manager Ryan Pace said of Grasu. "I see him as a future leader for us." But moving Whitehair back to guard seems unlikely. The Bears are set at left guard with Josh Sitton, who is also a three-time Pro Bowler. Sitton, a healthy Long back at right guard and Whitehair in the middle gives the Bears an elite interior. Sitton was graded as the league's third-best left guard by Pro Football Focus, and Whitehair was sixth among centers.

Grasu lacks position flexibility, but if he's plugged in at center it gives the Bears options with their other offensive linemen and, more important, depth.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If there's one thing I learned this season, it's that you can't have enough depth, especially on your offensive line," Pace said. "I view Hroniss more of a center only. If he comes back, that'd be the position he's competing for. If Hroniss is playing like a solid NFL starting center and gets to that level, which I think he can, that's a good problem.

"We have flexibility with other guys. Cody Whitehair is a flexible guy, and Kyle is, too. We'll see how it shakes out."

The Bears could revisit the idea of moving Long to tackle, as they did in 2015, but they seem reluctant to do so. Long is a much better guard than tackle, and he is definitely not a left tackle, which is the Bears' O-line position with the most room for improvement.

"That would be a concern, moving him around, and we have to be conscious of that," Pace said of Long. "Kyle's coming off two injuries, so he's going to miss a lot of time this off-season. He's at his best when he's focused on one position."

Moving Long to right tackle also doesn't make sense because Bobby Massie, after a poor start, played well for most of the 2016 season.

The Bears could upgrade at left tackle for Charles Leno, but it's not as if the 2014 seventh-round draft pick was a glaring weak link, and the Bears like his athleticism.

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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