Bobby Massie

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for Bears to fill hole on offensive line

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for Bears to fill hole on offensive line

One of Ryan Pace’s first moves with an eye on the Bears’ 2018 roster was releasing guard Josh Sitton back in February, which generated $8 million in cap savings but created a hole in team’s offensive line. The Bears can pencil in four starters for September: Left tackle Charles Leno, guard Kyle Long, guard/center Cody Whitehair and right tackle Bobby Massie. None of those guys appear to be going anywhere as free agency nears. 

Part of the reason the Bears released Sitton was the team’s confidence in the health of Long, who underwent neck surgery in December, had his shoulder operated on in January and missed time due to an ankle injury last season. 

“Kyle is working hard,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “We feel good about his progress. So yeah, that's part of the equation.”

As the Bears look for Sitton’s replacement, the ability of Whitehair to play guard (the position at which he was drafted) or center (where he’s largely played the last two years) offers some flexibility. Bringing in Harry Hiestand — Notre Dame’s offensive line coach from 2012 to 2017 — makes Quenton Nelson a natural fit with the No. 8 pick in April, presuming A) Nelson is still on the board and B) the Bears are OK “reaching” for a less-valued position with a top-10 pick. 

But if the Bears do look to fill Sitton’s spot through free agency, they’ll have some interesting options, too. 

Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers

Norwell is the best offensive lineman available this month. The 6-foot-6, 313-pound 26-year-old is coming off an All-Pro 2017 season and hasn’t missed a game in the last two years. He has a similar “nasty” streak to Nelson, and signing him would allow Long to stay on the right side of the line, where he’s been a three-time Pro Bowler. 

“Andrew had a terrific year, and he's been nothing but a solid player for us every season,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last week. 

The issue with Norwell, though, is pretty clear: He’s going to cost quite a bit, maybe upwards of $30 million in guaranteed money. If the Bears wanted to get younger and cheaper in releasing Sitton, they’ll get younger with Norwell, but not cheaper. Even with a healthy cap situation, signing Norwell could mean the Bears have about $20 million tied up at guard in 2020 — and that’s not to mention the likely need for Whitehair to receive a second contract in a year. 

Don’t put it past Pace to commit resources to building Mitch Trubisky’s offensive line, but given the current composition of that group, it seems a little far-fetched to imagine Norwell as part of it. 

Zach Fulton, Kansas City Chiefs

Fulton looks like a good fit for the Bears for a few reasons:

— He played in 63 of 64 games from 2014 to 2017 with the Chiefs, so Matt Nagy can vouch for the 26-year-old’s toughness and consistency. 

— Like Whitehair, he’s flexible enough to play guard or center, so getting him in the building would allow Hiestand to figure out the best interior combination during OTAs, minicamps and training camp. 

— He’d accomplish both getting younger and cheaper than Sitton. 

— He’s a Homewood-Flossmoor alum, and being a local product couldn’t hurt the Bears’ pitch to him. 

Josh Kline, Tennessee Titans

If the Bears can’t land/pass on Norwell, the 28-year-old Kline would make sense as a target along with Fulton. He played in all 16 games for the Titans last year, though that was the first time in his five-year career that he didn’t miss a game. The Hoffman Estates native (he went to high school in Ohio) would provide some less-expensive stability, though Fulton might be the better option if the Bears have a choice. 

Justin Pugh, New York Giants

The Giants want to keep Pugh, who’s played both guard and tackle since New York used a first-round pick on him in 2013. If the Giants are willing to pay him like a tackle, that probably prices him out of the Bears’ range if they want him as a guard — if he even wants to leave New York in the first place. 

Senio Kelemete, New Orleans Saints

Kelemete and Pace overlapped for a year in New Orleans, and he’d be a solid fit as a reserve with the ability to play all five positions on the offensive line. He’s never been a full-time starter (58 games played, 22 starts), but he’s only missed one game in the last three years, potentially making him a more reliable backup than Tom Compton going forward. 

Chris Hubbard, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Bears don’t appear to be moving on from Massie at right tackle in part because A) he’s coming off a solid season and 2) there’s not a clear upgrade available in free agency. If the Bears sign a tackle, it’ll most likely be a backup along the lines of Hubbard, who’s played in 40 games but only started 14 times in his four-year NFL career.

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl. 

Blowout win over Cincinnati turns on the light at the end of the tunnel for Bears’ young core

Blowout win over Cincinnati turns on the light at the end of the tunnel for Bears’ young core

CINCINNATI — If the Bears pull off a Los Angeles Rams-esque turnaround in 2018, their future offensive success might look a little like what went down in Sunday’s 33-7 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Mitchell Trubisky completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over while operating more aggressive offensive gameplan. Jordan Howard rumbled for 147 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns, and Tarik Cohen provided a spark with 80 yards on 12 carries. Adam Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards and reeled in a touchdown. The Bears’ offensive line, despite a rash of first-half penalties, largely kept Trubisky upright and paved the way for Howard and Cohen to account for more rushing yards (227) than team had total offensive yards a week ago (147).  

“What’s been frustrating for me and the coaches is that a lot of us have had our day in the sun, but to see young guys come in and work hard and not reap those benefits,” coach John Fox said. “I thought Mitch Trubisky played very well last week. When you don’t experience the end result that’s a W, it’s hard to put much into that. I’ve seen him grow every week he’s been out there since all the way back to Minnesota. It’s just kind of nice to see some of those young guys experience the benefits of all the hard work.”

Kendall Wright, who’s due to hit free agency, had a massive game (11 targets, 10 catches, 107 yards) and said he won’t focus on where he’ll wind up signing until after the season. But he did add: “If they want me, I’m here. I’m cool with it.”

The Bears’ exact blueprint on Sunday won’t necessarily be easy to follow in 2018, let alone these last three games, given the Bengals’ defense was 1) missing a number of key players, like linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, and 2) didn’t appear to give a very good effort. But more important than Howard bludgeoning the Bengals into submission over the course of a lackluster afternoon was the Bears, for the first time in 2017, scoring a touchdown on their first offensive possession.

“That was big for us,” right tackle Bobby Massie said. “It was just a confidence thing. We’re capable of doing it, we just got to do it.”

The Bears’ gameplan from that point on felt more aggressive, with Trubisky slinging passes toward nine different teammates while looking comfortable going through his progressions in the pocket. This was a far cry from what the Bears did after getting an early lead against the Carolina Panthers back in October, with Trubisky taking a bunch of sacks and barely throwing the ball in an uninspiring offensive performance.  

The Bears jumped ahead Sunday and, instead of conservatively trying to protect the lead, aggressively tried to grow it. The result was the franchise’s biggest margin of victory in half a decade.

“Everybody wanted the ball,” Trubisky said. “The linemen wanted the ball to run behind them, the receivers wanted the ball in their eyes, and the running backs wanted (to run). When everybody has that hunger, that desire to want to go out and execute the next play, it makes it fun on offense.”

Perhaps the biggest question about Sunday’s game is where this gameplan was all season. But getting in the end zone on that first drive not only boosted the confidence of the players, it could’ve boosted the confidence of Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to open things up.

“(We were) making some of those plays that we maybe didn’t make earlier in the year,” Wright said. “But when you’re making those plays and having fun, it makes it easier for Mitch to find whoever, it makes it easier for Dowell to call whatever plays he wants.”

The story of the 2017 season, though, was written before Sunday’s win ended a five-game losing streak that included duds against the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. All the Bears can do in these final weeks of the season is work to build a foundation for 2018, and that starts with validating that the work they’ve put in this year hasn’t been for nothing.

For Trubisky, it’s not necessarily about personal validation — he’s been confident in his growth even without the wins to back it up. But for the Bears’ young core that played so well on Sunday, it counts for something right now — and may count for something next fall.

“(The losing streak) felt like s***,” Massie said. “You’re getting your ass kicked all the time — it doesn’t feel good to lose. All the work we put in, we deserve this win. We came out, did what we were supposed to do and we got it.”