Josh Sitton

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. 

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. 

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

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USA Today

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

On Wednesday’s edition of the Under Center Podcast, John “Moon” Mullin and I broke down the Bears’ current depth chart, and which players on it will and won’t be back in 2018. 

The genesis of the pod, which you can listen to below, was with this color-coded depth chart:

 

Instead of a deep dive into each of these units, as we did on the podcast, this will more be a look at who those players are who are locked into roster spots in 2018. This should begin to paint a picture of where the Bears’ positions of need are heading into the offseason. 

OFFENSE
 
QB: Mitchell Trubisky
RB: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen
FB: 
WR: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White
TE: Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen
LT: Charles Leno Jr.
LG: Josh Sitton, Eric Kush
C: Cody Whitehair
RG: Kyle Long, Eric Kush
RT: 

The first point to note with any of these projections is we don’t know what the Bears offense and defense will look like in 2018 with a potentially different coaching staff in place (i.e., if that coaching staff wants a fullback). 

The biggest need on this side of the ball, clearly, is wide receiver. Meredith and White are both coming off injuries (for White, three injuries in three years), and it’s fair to wonder if they can be as productive as the Bears expected them to be this season. 

The top five receivers currently scheduled to hit free agency are Davante Adams (744 yards, 7 TDs), Jarvis Landry (699 yards, 6 TDs), Marqise Lee (637, 3 TDs), Paul Richardson (592 yards, 5 TDs) and Sammy Watkins (528 yards, 6 TDs). Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright could play their way into contracts with the Bears in 2018 — both are due to hit free agency, too — with good play down the stretch. Inman, especially, has quickly developed chemistry with Trubisky since being acquired from the Los Angeles Chargers in October. 

The Bears could also potentially see an upgrade at right tackle, depending on how they’ve evaluated Bobby Massie’s season and his potential cap savings if he’s released ($5.6 million, according to Spotrac). There will be a need to add depth behind these starting linemen — though if Kush returns healthy from a training camp ACL injury, that would be a boost. 

Not all of these offensive players are "core" guys, but Trubisky, Howard, Cohen, Sitton, Whitehair and Long should fit that designation. 
 
DEFENSE

DE: Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bullard
DT: Eddie Goldman
OLB: Leonard Floyd
ILB: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski
CB: 
S: Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos

Whether the Bears’ 2018 defense is a 3-4 (as run by Vic Fangio) or a 4-3 (as run by a different defensive coordinator) remains to be seen, but these eight players would fit any scheme. 

The clear need is at cornerback, with Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara becoming free agents next year. Marcus Cooper hasn’t played up to his contract and would save the Bears $4.5 million in cap room if he were released (again, per Spotrac). Nickel corners Bryce Callahan (a restricted free agent) and Cre’von LeBlanc could be back, as could special teams ace Sherrick McManis (an unrestricted free agent). Finding an upgrade at this position is a definite “must-do” for the Bears’ offseason checklist.

But so is adding at least one go-to edge rusher, regardless of scheme fit. Pernell McPhee and Willie Young aren’t guaranteed to be back, given their relative lack of production (largely in McPhee’s case), their injury histories (in both players’ cases) or their age (in Young’s case). But if the Bears pencil in Hicks and Floyd as go-to pass-rushers in 2018, they still need a third. 

The good news is Jackson and Amos proved to be a solid safety duo in 2017, and that should carry over to 2018 (Quintin Demps could return, but perhaps as a backup). Goldman has been one of the Bears’ best defensive players this year and could be in line for a contract extension in the offseason. Trevathan is a rock on this defense, too, and is another player on whom a 2018 defense can be built. 

The "core" guys in this group: Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan and Floyd. 
 
SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: 
Punter: 
Long snapper: Andrew DePaola, Patrick Scales

Pat O’Donnell will be a free agent, while the Bears’ revolving door of kickers in 2017 isn’t likely to produce a long-term solution in 2018.