Bears addressing center transition with rare outsider


Bears addressing center transition with rare outsider

BOURBONNAIS — The Bears ended an era last April when they released veteran center Roberto Garza. Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, the team is tasked with staffing that vital position on the offensive line with a starter who wasn’t with the team the previous year or longer.

For the better part of the last 16 seasons the Bears went through myriad permutations of offensive lines. But throughout that stretch there was one anchor of continuity, that of the center position. That is changing in 2015.

For seven of those 16 seasons their centers represented the Bears in the Pro Bowl. Olin Kreutz, who won the starting job in 1999, went to six Pro Bowls, and Garza was selected as an alternate in 2011, his first year starting after Kreutz and the Bears separated over a contract impasse.

And even when Kreutz left, his successor — Garza — had been lined up to his right for the five previous seasons. That would be the epitome of “continuity.” Garza stepped in at center during the 2011 training camp in Kreutz’s absence, a move that became permanent in part because quarterback Jay Cutler instantly developed a liking for Garza’s handling of the position.

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Garza retired last offseason, and the Bears were tasked with filling a need/vacancy that hadn’t existed for more than 30 years, back through Garza, Kreutz, Casey Wiegmann, Jerry Fontenot and Jay Hilgenberg.

The Bears acquired Oregon center Hroniss Grasu with a 2015 third-round pick — the same round in which the Bears drafted Fontenot (1989) and Kreutz (1998). This after first securing the position with some experience, signing former Denver center Will Montgomery this offseason to replace Garza.

“(Montgomery) is familiar with the system,” said coach John Fox, who saw Montgomery work in the system of then-Broncos and now-Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “There’s a lot to the center. He’s kind of the quarterback of the O-line. So we know how he fits that way and what his demeanor is.

“That’s why a lot of coaches and staffs move around, they bring players with them they’re familiar with. He’s adapted well. I think he’s helped the growth of our offensive line with that knowledge of the system.”

Montgomery has been ensconced as the starter since his acquisition. That has set him up with difficult matchups in Jeremiah Ratliff and rookie Eddie Goldman during much of practice. Grasu has worked against Goldman and Terry Williams, a 329-pounder. Grasu responded Monday with a stout stop of a bull rush by Williams, one of the surprise rookies of camp. Both have had wins and losses against some of the stoutest interior linemen in camp.

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Running back

The competition for roster spots got interesting on Monday as multiple backs produced impact plays. Diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers turned the corner and extended a sweep with quality moves on Kyle Fuller and Antrel Rolle. Quarterback Jay Cutler also went to Rodgers with a short flip that Rodgers took through traffic to the goal line. Rookie Jeremy Langford broke a run off the right side, got to the second level and reached the ball into the end zone for a score. That helped make up for being stuffed in the backfield by a power rush from defensive tackle Brandon Dunn.

Ka’Deem Carey is running with more confidence in his second training camp, hitting holes and executing blitz-pickup assignments like someone who has been in his playbook, which he said he has been. Daniel Thomas, the power back on the roster at 230 pounds, broke a run around the left side with a spin move that caused whiffs by two defenders who mercifully will remain nameless here.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.