Offensive line play around the NFL is in a bad place right now. Starting quarterbacks are getting mashed with regularity and the average yards per carry for the league's rushing attacks are down as well. Possible reasons for this decline range from less padded practice time and the impact of free agency on player movement, to the rise of spread concepts in college football. Regardless of why it's happening, it is happening, and the Bears are not immune.
Chicago's offensive line has been shaken not stirred this season. New coaches, a new scheme, new players and old players in fresh places have all served to destabilize the unit. Don't think of it as a renovation; it is more like a "tear down and complete rebuild". Given all of that upheaval the line has actually outperformed my (understandably limited) expectations at times. However I do not know anyone who would look at the Bears OL unit and say it's good to go, as is. It desperately needs young talent, just like the rest of the team. Top-flite offensive tackles don't grow on trees. They usually come from the top of the draft. If those players succeed and stay away from injuries they get locked up for the long term and rarely shake loose from their original team.
Current Bear Jermon Bushrod is an average to above average left tackle (when healthy) that the Saints were willing to let walk for a trio of reasons: age, price and confidence he could be replaced. The Bears tackle cupboard was almost completely devoid of talent due to poor drafting and injuries, so they were willing to pay the price and signed him in 2013. He's been steady if not spectacular since then. Bushrod is surprisingly only 31 (it seems like he's been around forever) and tackles routinely play well into their later 30's. He is currently injured (concussion) and in the third year of his 5-year contract.
The other tackle spot is currently manned by Kyle Long. Long was swapped to tackle from his perch at guard in what can only be described as an emergency move after playing inside for the entire preseason. No other player stood up and took the job, so former starter Jordan Mills was cut and Long slid over to start learning the RT spot in live-fire action. Not an ideal way to conduct on-the-job training. Long is great athlete and fast learner so he may stick at tackle long-term, but that is not a sure thing. Either way the Bears still need help at tackle.
Ronnie Stanley, Offensive Tackle, Notre Dame
The solution may come from right down the road. Ronnie Stanley is a senior at Notre Dame and their current starting left tackle. He is also ridiculously skilled and very likely to be one of the first (if not the first) offensive tackles selected in the upcoming draft. Stanley is a hulking figure at over 6' 5" and 315 pounds. Unlike many of his peers he is not a "big fat guy". He is almost all muscle and it shows up in his play on the field. He is a legitimately agile athlete who just happens to top the scale at 3 bills. It's not often that you will see an offensive tackle 6 yards ahead of his running back, diving headlong to make a block on the second level, but you will with Stanley.
Stanley is decent in the run game but not amazing. Technically sound (although he tends to stand up a bit on run blocks), he does lock on to his assigned defender and holds his ground. He's not the massive bulldozer-type clearing out anything in front of him, but if his opponent makes an error Stanley will capitalize and put him on the ground. He moves to the second level very well, clearly understands offensive concepts and uses that knowledge to get to the right place and set up. He doesn't run himself out of plays or into penalties. It is obvious he's an intelligent football player who takes coaching well and studies.
As solid as he is in the run game, the main attraction is his masterful pass blocking. If you wanted to show young lineman "how-to" tapes, you could do a lot worse them showing them Ronnie Stanley game films. His technique is very sound; from his kick slide to his hand use and especially his balance. He's extremely patient but still aggressive when he needs to be. That combination alone makes him rare. His elite balance shows up over and over again on film. He is able to absorb, strike, mirror and anchor; all with equal skill. He stays in front of his defender and can counter speed or power moves. He is almost never schemed any help. Instead he normally faces the other team's top pass rushing threat alone, and usually neutralizes them. His overall game really is a thing of beauty.
Nobody is perfect and Stanley does have areas he could improve upon, but they almost seem like nitpicking when compared to the overwhelming majority of his tape. He tends to "play a little high" in the run game, meaning he doesn't drop his butt and drive defenders off the ball. Part of this comes from being 6' 5", and part from the fact that he can normally win with strength alone in college. His feet are quick but not ridiculously so. His combination of great balance and length (he has very long arms) serve to cover that deficiency almost completely. He can also be beaten by a very good spin move, as he was against Clemson this year. The silver lining is that he learned and adjusted, and later in the same game stopped the spin move. Not making the same mistake twice is a huge part of being a quality NFL offensive lineman.
There is no telling how the Bears will prioritize help for their offensive line 6 months from now when the draft rolls around. But if they decide to build the team from the inside out, and specifically decide that OT is a pressing need, Ronnie Stanley will certainly be very near the top of their list.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are making impacts in the pro game)
Todd Gurley (RB Rams) - I got behind Todd Gurley in a big way last year early on. I suggested that he was worthy of a top 10 pick (depending on how his knee checked out) way before that was a popular take in any mock drafts (April 10th in The Den to be exact), and took a ton of heat for it. Gurley showed up and showed off, helping to seal a Rams win on Sunday. He gained over 100 yards in the 4th quarter alone. I said it before and I'll say it again, if his health holds up, he'll be special.
Za'Darius Smith (OLB Ravens) - Despite showing up pretty often on tape, Smith was overshadowed in last year's draft by his higher-profile linemate at Kentucky, Bud Dupree. They met on Thursday night and Smith got to show his old pal a thing or two: notching 2 sacks on the evening.
Eddie Goldman (DT Bears) - Big Eddie had himself a bit of a coming out party against the Raiders. He locked down his first positive grade of the season (according to PFF) and picked up his first professional sack to go along with 2 run stops. Having Goldman continue to develop quickly would be a major boost to the interior of the Bears defense.
Failure to Launch (rookies that have not yet showcased their skills on the NFL stage)
NOTE - It is way too early (4 games into the season) to put any player here, so the only point of listing anyone now is because they have not flashed YET, compared to their hype. It is NOT a prediction that they will never get their game going.
Jameis Winston (QB Buccaneers) - Jameis has already displayed both his best and worst qualities in this young NFL season, but Sunday was in the "awful" category. There is not giving your team a chance to win and then there is throwing 4 interceptions and losing a fumble... in a division game... at home. Ouch.
Devin Funchess (WR Panthers) - Funchess was a second round pick with great size that a lot of draft watchers were expecting big rookie numbers from. So far, even though the Panthers are basically starving for WR's (anyone who can name their starting tandem of receivers without looking it up gets a peppermint), Funchess has 3 grabs for 38 yards and no scores... or roughly the same production as your undrafted Bears wideout Cameron Meredith (3/36, no TD's).
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
It's okay to have "draft crushes" (players who you really enjoy watching, or who play for your favorite college team), just don't let your starry-eyed gaze blind you to the facts. Following those player's paths to the pros can be a ton of fun, but don't talk yourself into thinking they are better than they really are. Watch the tape, record what you see and always be looking for what they don't do well. It will make you a better evaluator.