Heading into the 2013 draft, the Bears had surrendered a total of 149 sacks in the prior three seasons, ahead of only Arizona with 162 for worst in the NFL. General manager Phil Emery and his scouting staff were focused on infusing young talent along the offensive line to attempt to preserve the health of QB Jay Cutler, who took the majority of those sacks.
In the first round, the Bears selected OG Kyle Long -- a very athletic but raw prospect out of Oregon. In the fifth round, the Bears continued to add depth on the offensive line when they selected OT Jordan Mills from Louisiana Tech. Emery and the Bears have seen strong returns from both rookies who have started all six games while playing next to each other on the right side of the line.
Coming out of Oregon, Long had one of the higher ceilings of any offensive linemen in the 2013 class. At 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, he had a well-proportioned frame to go along with raw power, exceptional flexibility and athleticism. He also came from great bloodlines, as he's the son of Hall of Fame DT Howie Long and brother of St. Louis DE Chris Long.
While there was a lot to like about Long's upside, he also came with some risk. There were character concerns. He left Florida State, where he was on a baseball scholarship, for academic reasons before getting arrested on a DUI charge early the next year.
Long also did not possess ideal experience coming out. After playing two years at Saddleback Community College, Long spent just one season at Oregon playing against FBS competition with just five starts in 11 games. For these reasons, Long received a fringe first-round grade.
At this point, the risk appears to be with the reward. Long has been a plug-and-play rookie from the start. If he can keep his nose clean, he looks to have Pro Bowl potential. He is light on his feet, has a strong inline power base to go along with a powerful upper body and heavy hands. Long's flexibility has also played a big factor in his early success.
He shows above-average torque in his torso as a run blocker to steer defenders and open up creases. Long has abnormal height for a guard prospect and can get into trouble when setting too high in pass protection. This can force him to become off balance and give ground initially against more powerful interior rushers. However, his ability to bend at the knees as well sink his hips provides him the ability to recover and regain balance.
Long still has plenty of room for improvement. His angles when climbing to the second level or when pulling to cover up defenders in space must become more consistent. In addition, he shows inconsistency with his awareness recognizing stunts and blitzes. This will improve, but it should be expected from a rookie with such little experience as well as playing next to another rookie tackle in Mills.
Speaking of Mills, he has been the bigger surprise of the two. He performed well in camp to earn the starting right tackle spot and hasn't looked back. We gave Mills a fourth-round grade coming out. He had average athleticism but was a wide body with long 34-inch arms. Mills also played with an edge and was more effective as a run blocker than as a pass blocker at the collegiate level.
Mills has held his own through the first six games. He has been a solid run blocker displaying strong inline power and the toughness required for the right tackle position.
He has had some ups and downs in pass protection but has fared better than expected early on. Mills shows a strong base and has the length to lock out or ride rushers past the pocket when he's able to get into position. He lacks ideal foot speed, though. This can make him vulnerable against speed off the edge where he will reach or lunge instead of moving his feet. Also, like Long, Mills is still adjusting to the playing speed at the NFL level and has been a quarter-count late when identifying pressures on occasion.
Long and Mills have played a big part in the improvement the Bears have seen in protection to start the year. Part of the credit also goes to first year head coach Mark Trestman, who is making Cutler get the ball out more quickly and more efficiently. In fact, after giving up 44 sacks last season and ranking in the bottom quarter of the league, the Bears have given up just nine sacks through six games, which is tied for the third fewest.
Overall, the Bears have to be satisfied with the early play of Long and Mills and appear to have solidified the right side of the offensive line for years to come.