Hroniss Grasu injury hurts Bears hard on multiple levels

Hroniss Grasu injury hurts Bears hard on multiple levels

BOURBONNAIS — When center Hroniss Grasu went down Saturday with what is expected to be a season-ending right-knee injury, a shock wave went through the Bears organization.

The immediate concern was — and is — for Grasu, already a core member of a young offensive line coming together for what the Bears have planned on being a long-term part of their foundation. No one had worked harder than the young lineman from Oregon at his craft, at his physical development, at settling into an offense necessarily changing from exactly what it had been last year when Grasu started eight games after an injury to another center, Will Montgomery.

“Last year, he was very reserved and almost a little understated, I would say,” right guard Kyle Long said of Grasu as camp opened. “He was afraid to kind of ruffle some feathers. I think Hroniss has done a great job of getting back to who he is. You move all the football stuff aside, he’s a great guy, he’s got a great personality, he gets along with everybody, he’s funny, he works hard, he’s a blue-collar guy. But then you put in that learning curve with football and you’re going to see a guy who’s on the ascent here for a long time in Chicago.”

That is the overarching loss, at least until Grasu is back. And “getting back” should be the assumption until circumstances prove otherwise. Roberto Garza gave the Bears a decade of superb play, first at guard, then at center, without an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

But the Bears invested a third-round pick in the 2015 draft on Grasu — the same round the Bears drafted long-time centers Jerry Fontenot and Olin Kreutz — and he represents a key part of philosophy within the organization: building through the draft. That plan just took a harsh hit, for at least one year.

And the significance of one year should not be understated. One line of camp is how losing last year to a stress fracture has given wide receiver Kevin White some catching up to do. And Charles Leno went from a seventh-round pick playing only as a sixth offensive lineman in 2014 to a starting left tackle by mid-2015. One year.

The ripple effect on the 2016 Bears is difficult to quantify at this juncture. General manager Ryan Pace aggressively added players this offseason to upgrade competition, but that approach had the added benefit of upgrading depth, as well. Ted Larsen was on course to become a starter-grade swing man at all three interior-line positions; now he is potentially the No. 1 center with Grasu down, meaning the Bears now have a question at depth at center. (Larsen also needs to take a quantum step up in discipline to dial back the number of fights starting in his vicinity. Those are notable in practice; they are catastrophic in games when penalties and suspensions can result.)

How much can that center depth matter? Ask Jay Cutler, who managed things through three different centers last season. That would not be the kind of “versatility” any team seeks.

For the time being at least, the Bears are not as good on the offensive line. Larsen was not starting over Grasu because he wasn’t viewed by the coaches as the player giving the Bears the best chance to win.

Options remain to sort out. Larsen has played center in the past and in camp; he is one. So is moving ascending rookie Cody Whitehair from starting at left guard to filling in at center. That involves changing two positions, never a preferred solution. The Bears have gotten good work out of Cornelius Edison, who spent part of last season on the Bears' practice squad. And Pace signed Amini Silatolu, a former second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers (2012). But Silatolu was available in large part because he’d finished the 2013 season on IR with a torn right ACL and 2015 with a torn left ACL.

The NFL operates on a principle of “next man up” when a player is lost to injury. The Bears do have “next men,” but Grasu was one of those next men last year. Replacing him even in the short term was not part of the 2016 plan.

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.