LAKE FOREST – Jordan Mills looks back on his rookie season when he made 16 starts for the Bears at right tackle and knows he could have never navigated his way through without some help from the veterans charged with bringing him along.
A year later, the learning curve is far from over. But Mills is among those being asked to assist in the development of younger players, hoping to impact them in the same way he was last year when the 6-foot-5, 316-pound tackle was the one learning the ropes.
The mentoring role is one Mills relishes as he prepares for a season when he is expected to become an even more established part of an offensive line that was instrumental in a Bears offense that was among the NFL's best.
While the Bears return all of their starters on the line from a year ago, there's plenty of youth in the reserve ranks. Seventh-round pick Charles Leno will likely be Kyle Long's back-up at right guard while undrafted free agents James Dunbar (OG), Cody Booth (OT) and Ryan Groy (OG) will also try to fit on the Bears 53-man roster to provide depth on the offensive line.
A veteran, Mills acknowledges, he is not. But after a season when any growing pains were experienced on the front lines but minimized by the veterans around him, Mills has enough know-how in his arsenal to help prepare his younger teammates.
"It's great being the one to help the young guys even though I'm still a young guy myself," the former fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech said on Tuesday. "I'm still learning to help them get through their rookie season. I may not know everything, but whatever they need, I can go to a veteran and ask them, 'What did you do when this happened?' and relay it to (younger players)."
Despite becoming a staple on the line in his 16 starts last year, Mills is still seeking out help. He says there is still plenty for him to work for him to do, whether it's in improving on his hands, his footwork or his technique. Mills still actively picks the brains of sixth-year offensive guard Matt Slauson or 14-year veteran Roberto Garza – both of whom, among others, have aided Mills' maturation.
He also goes to those in leadership roles – whether it be Bears coach Marc Trestman or offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, asking what he can do to become a great NFL player and in turn, better help his team.
Although Mills – who is now fully recovered from offseason foot surgery – is willing to take on more of a teaching role, the fact he is still anxious to learn has impressed Trestman.
"He's an example of how to do things," Trestman said last month when Mills was honored as the rookie recipient of the Brian Piccolo Award. "He does everything as if he’s walking like a champion every day. He’s early to meetings, he’s well-prepared, he’s humble, he listens. He does a lot of the things and never feels like he knows it all."
The fact the Bears will return their entire starting offensive line this season makes Mills' continuing education even easier. Getting everyone back, Mills said, not only helps him, but also benefits the Bears offense as a whole as the unit hopes to take the next step after ranking eighth in the NFL in total offense in 2013.
Whether the Bears are able to do that will again be dependent of the play up front, relying on a unit that Mills said is more cohesive because of the familiarity that comes from returning all of its starters. The expectation both for himself and his teammates, Mills said, is simple: To go from "very good" to great.
"Last year is in the past," Mills said. "(The NFL) is a 'What have you done for me now' league. So what I did in the past was great, but I'm looking forward to the future and helping my teammates and this team and this organization get to a Super Bowl and win one."