- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the Super Bowl out of the way, we wanted to take stock of how Chicago’s 2013 rookie class performed last season.
In general manager Phil Emery’s third year with the Chicago Bears, all six players from his latest class of selections made the 2013 roster. Three became starters, four started games, and one more received playing time.
How did they do? We’ll try to assess right here:
Stats: None individually, but as a rookie starter on what had previously been a shaky offensive line, Kyle Long contributed to improved protection in 2013 for an offense that set multiple single-season franchise records. With Long in the starting lineup, the offense racked up a franchise-record 6,109 yards on the way to finishing second in team history in scoring (445 points).
2013 Role: The team’s first-round pick, Long missed valuable time in the offseason program because he was ineligible to participate in organized team activities and a minicamp because of Oregon’s quarter system, which pushed the school’s final exams back to the middle of June. All along the team planned to make Long a Day 1 starter. So it worked diligently to get Long up to speed in making his NFL transition, and the rookie came along quickly.
Long started all 16 games and was named to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for San Francisco guard Mike Iupati, who broke an ankle in the NFC Championship Game.
The good: Long became the club’s first offensive lineman to earn Pro Bowl recognition since 2006 (Olin Kreutz and Ruben Brown), and played a key role on the right side of the line, especially in the running game. With four new starters on the offensive line, the Bears finished 2013 as one of three teams in the NFL to start the same five offensive linemen for all 16 games, and the group allowed 30 sacks last season, which tied for fourth fewest in the NFL. The club’s 30 sacks ranked as its fewest since 2008, when the Bears surrendered 29 sacks.
Long played a total of 1,079 snaps as a rookie, giving up just two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus as the Bears finished with a 4.9 sacks percentage on a total of 609 drop backs (sixth-lowest for the Bears since sacks became an official statistic in 1982).
Interestingly, Chicago experienced most of its success running behind Long (6.27 yards per attempt to his side), who was penalized just three times all season.
The bad: It’s a bad idea to ever ask a player to take it down a notch, but at times Long’s pedal-to-the-floor style of play led to him being overaggressive, which in turn adversely affected technique. So while the Bears won’t ask Long to dial it down totally, they’ll need him to learn to consistently lean on technique regardless of the situation and atmosphere, even when things get tense. Really, there’s not much bad you can say about what initially seemed like a head-scratcher of a pick in the first round. He earned his way into the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Perhaps the most memorable “bad” moment for Long was his fight near the sidelines on Nov. 24 at St. Louis, involving Rams defensive end William Hayes. But the scuffle appeared to be a case of Long protecting a teammate. That’s a good thing.
Looking ahead: His physical tools, attitude, and thirst to continually improve indicate Long can develop into a key cog on Chicago’s offensive line, and remain there for the next 10 years or so. Once Long can consistently combine the small fundamental elements such as hand placement and weight disbursement when engaged with his tremendous strength, aggression and mobility, the Bears could have something special at the right guard position. What’s scary is Long appears to possess the skill set to kick outside to tackle, should the Bears choose to try him there in the coming years. Based on offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer’s reputation for developing offensive linemen and Long’s willingness to learn, the Bears will coax the most from the rising second-year player. There should be several more Pro Bowls awaiting Long in the future.