CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 15: Kyle Long #75 of the Chicago Bears smiles at a teammate on the sidelines during a game against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on August 15, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Chargers 33-28. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Chicago Bears have had trouble assembling a quality offensive line since Olin Kreutz and John Tait helped anchor a line that made it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2007, but in the 2013 season, they finally were able to get some good things going as they kept Jay Cutler upright and kept the team’s playoff hopes alive until the final seconds of the regular season.
There is plenty of credit that should go around for that reversal in fortunes, with veterans like Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson helping to anchor the left side of the line and Jordan Mills surprising everyone as a sixth round pick that ended up starting all 16 games at right tackle. Perhaps the most important addition to the line though was a draft pick that many people criticized when it occurred, and that was bringing Kyle Long into the fold with a first round pick in 2013.
Long has the requisite size and speed to be a good offensive lineman, but the big concern with his selection out of the University of Oregon was his limited time there as a starter. He started 10 games for the Ducks during the 2012 season, and at the age of 24 he was brought in by the Bears as the 20th overall pick in the draft.
The former standout baseball player (he was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 2008 draft, but never signed with the team) may not have had much experience as a starter in college, but he certainly showed off some serious skills in his rookie season with the Bears. Starting all 16 games for the team, Long helped the Bears to a much improved season both in terms of protecting quarterback Jay Cutler and in giving running back Matt Forte some big holes to run through.
In the 2012 season, Cutler was sacked 38 times, and Jason Campbell was sacked six times for a total of 44 sacks of Bears quarterbacks. In 2013, the line only allowed 30 sacks, with Cutler only going down 19 times. Forte also had a big jump in his statistics, rushing for 1339 yards and improving by nearly 250 yards over his previous season’s total.
As good as those numbers are, the Bears’ line needs to continue that progress if the team is going to be successful, and Long is arguably the most important component of that. Guys like Slauson are going to have a lot of pressure on them thanks to new contracts, but Long’s development is the key to long-term success for the offensive line, and he needs to take the next step forward in the coming season in order to justify the faith in him that Emery and company have shown.
Whether that’s tightening up his fundamentals, becoming more of a leader in the locker room, or perhaps even shifting around to other positions to expand his versatility, Long has some work to do in the 2014 season, and he is going to be one of the most important players on the roster from the moment the opening kick-off is struck against the Buffalo Bills.