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.