Kyle Long

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. 

The Bears' pitch to prospective coaches will be enticing, but not perfect


The Bears' pitch to prospective coaches will be enticing, but not perfect

MINNEAPOLIS — The John Fox Era came to a close Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the 2017 season ended with a 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. 

As the Bears begin the search for their third head coach since firing Lovie Smith after the 2012 season, keep this in mind: It won’t be as simple as the Bears identifying their guy and hiring him. With plenty of franchises expected to also have head-coaching vacancies — including sides with established quarterbacks like the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions — the Bears will have to pitch themselves, too.

New Year’s Eve wasn’t exactly a great pitch for the Bears, with Michael Burton the team’s leading rusher at halftime with one carry for zero yards (Jordan Howard carried five times for minus-one yard). Mitchell Trubisky made a rookie mistake when he flipped the ball to no one in the end zone for an intentional grounding-caused safety, and the offense didn’t cross midfield until early in the first quarter. The Bears committed 10 penalties; they finish the 2017 season having committed at least eight penalties in nine games.

But looking at the larger scope of the Bears, there are three clear ways Ryan Pace, Ted Phillips and George McCaskey can sell the Bears to prospective coaching candidates:

1. Mitchell Trubisky

While Trubisky’s final 2017 numbers might not look too impressive (seven touchdowns, seven interceptions), those are in line with what plenty of rookie quarterbacks have done in recent history. The No. 2 overall pick has shown flashes of brilliance this year and has the athleticism and intangibles to be molded into a much better player. His leadership qualities shined even as the Bears again slipped to the bottom of the NFC North: The best anecdotal evidence of that is multiple veteran offensive linemen saying Trubisky would tell them to “shut the f*** up” if they were goofing off in the huddle.

There’s no better way for a head coach to obtain job security than by developing and tying himself to a franchise quarterback. Trubisky’s already worked through a lot of the growing pains of being a rookie, and the Bears should be able to entice some of the league’s best coaching candidates with an improving, highly touted quarterback.

2. The rest of the core

In addition to Trubisky, a good number of the Bears’ best players are in Years 1 or 2 of their NFL careers: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Cody Whitehair, Leonard Floyd, Nick Kwiatkoski and Eddie Jackson fit that bill. Eddie Goldman and Adrian Amos just finished their respective third years in the league. Adam Shaheen flashed his potential a few times between when the coaching staff played him more (following Zach Miller’s injury) and a chest injury that wound up ending his season (after the Cincinnati game). Akiem Hicks was a home run free-agent signing, Danny Trevathan a rock-solid anchor of the defense and a healthy Kyle Long is a key building block.

There’s still a lot of building that has to happen to fill out this roster, with wide receiver, edge rusher and cornerback red-line needs. The Bears could look to upgrade at tackle, too. The free agency whiffs since Pace became the team’s general manager in 2015 — most recently and notably, Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper at those red-line positions — have made those needs even more pressing. The Bears won’t be able to address all of them through the draft; Pace will need to hit on a free agent signing or a trade if all of them will be filled.

But there’s enough of a core here — it’s certainly better than things were after the end of the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery Era — that the next coach won’t have to do as much “erasing” as Fox did when he took over in 2015.

3. Updated facilities

The Bears picked an odd time — 4:30 p.m. on a Friday — to announce plans to significantly expand and renovate Halas Hall back in November. But the renovations are designed to add plenty of space and resources for the team’s players and coaches, and could be a selling point for not only the next coach, but future free agents. The renovations are expected to be completed in time for the 2019 season and include:

— A 13,000-square-foot indoor turf space with a 133’x26’ video projection wall and an adjacent virtual reality room.

— The weight room being expanded by 2,000 square feet.

— The sports medicine space being four times larger than the current space; there will also be an equipment room, recovery space and a nutrition and fuel station that are double the current size at Halas Hall.

— Coaches offices increasing by 50 percent, and position meeting rooms doubling in capacity.

— The locker room being expanded by 1,700 square feet, and a 3,250 players’ lounge will be added.

— The cafeteria being expanded by 4,300 square feet.

— Two additional practice fields that are already under construction, doubling the team’s outdoor practice field capacity.