Bears

Bears offensive line ranked 13th in NFL by Pro Football Focus

Bears offensive line ranked 13th in NFL by Pro Football Focus

The Chicago Bears are entering an exciting time. From Mitchell Trubisky, the young franchise quarterback GM Ryan Pace has hung his reputation on, to a defense that may have continued its long-standing tradition at inside linebacker with first-round pick Roquan Smith, there's good reason to be optimistic.

However, football is won in the trenches, and for the Bears to have any chance at a playoff run this season, they'll need exceptional play from the offensive line. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Chicago has the talent up front to contend. PFF ranked the Bears' offensive line 13th in the NFL.

13. CHICAGO BEARS

2017 season-end rank: 11th (-2)

We had this line ranked fifth at this time a season ago, but that was before Cody Whitehair disappointed in his sophomore campaign and Josh Sitton moved on to Miami. The interior that was so strong in 2016 and fueled a huge rookie campaign from Jordan Howard that all of a sudden looks much different. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. Rookie second-round pick James Daniels out of Iowa slots into left guard and was the highest run-blocking graded center in the country last year at only 20 years old. If Whitehair can get back to his rookie level which saw him earn an 85.9 overall grade and Kyle Long can stay healthy, this will be a top line once again.

The second-round selection of James Daniels, while noted as a good pick by most analysts, still feels underappreciated. His presence allows Whitehair to focus solely on playing center (assuming Kyle Long and Daniels stay healthy) and that will go a long way in helping him return to his rookie year form, as noted by PFF.

Still, much of the success up front will depend on how well right tackle Bobby Massie plays in pass protection. He has to hold up in order for Trubisky to take advantage of his new set of skill players, and while Massie hasn't been a total liability, he needs to play more consistent football in 2018.

The Bears offense is setting up for a huge year in 2018 that will largely depend on the play of five guys who won't catch a pass or score a touchdown. If they give Trubisky time to throw and open holes for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, a fight for the playoffs in December is a very real possibility.

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

If the NFL’s proposed collective bargaining agreement is ratified, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs in 2020— a change that will immediately alter the league's player movement landscape in the coming weeks and months.

Under the proposed structure, the Los Angeles Rams would’ve been the NFC’s No. 7 seed in 2019, with the 8-8 Bears finishing one game out of a playoff spot (really, two games, given they lost to the Rams). But as the Tennessee Titans showed last year, just getting into the dance can spark an underdog run to a conference title game. The vast majority of the NFL — those not in full-on tank mode — should view the potential for a seventh playoff spot as a license to be more aggressive in the free agent and trade market as soon as a few weeks from now.

So, should the Bears look at this new CBA as reason to be more aggressive in pushing to acquire one of the big-name quarterbacks who will, or could, be available this year? After all, merely slightly better quarterback play could’ve leapfrogged the Bears past the Rams and into the playoffs a year ago.

The prospect of Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr or Andy Dalton representing that upgrade feels tantalizing on the surface, right?

But the CBA’s addition of a seventh playoff team does not, as far as we know, also include an addition of significantly more cap space available to teams in 2020, even if the salary cap has increased 40 percent over the last five years. An extra $25 million is not walking through that door to add to the roughly $14 million the Bears currently have in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public salary cap report.

So that means every reason we laid out why the Bears should not make a splash move at quarterback remains valid, even with the NFL lowering its postseason barrier to entry.

The Bears’ best bet in 2020 remains signing a cheaper quarterback like Case Keenum or Marcus Mariota (who shares an agent with Mitch Trubisky, potentially complicating things) and banking on roster improvements being the thing that gets them back into the playoffs. Adding a quarterback for $17 million — Dalton’s price — or more would hamstring the Bears’ ability to address critical needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, thus giving the Bears a worse roster around a quarterback who’s no sure bet to be good enough to cover for the holes his cap hit would create.

Does it feel like a good bet? No, and maybe feels worse if it’s easier to get in the playoffs in 2020. But a Trubisky-Keenum pairing, complete with a new starting right guard to help the run game and more than just Demetrius Harris to upgrade the tight end room, is a better bet than Dalton or Bridgewater and a worse roster around them.

Also: This new playoff structure will tilt the balance of power significantly toward the No. 1 seeds in each conference. The last time a team made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye was after the 2012 season, when the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens won the title. Otherwise, every Super Bowl participant since hasn't played on wild card weekend. 

So while the Bears may become closer to the playoffs if the new CBA is ratified, they won’t be closer to getting a No. 1 seed. And that holds true even if they were to find a way to sign Tom Brady.

Getting in the playoffs can spark something special. But the Bears’ best path back to meaningful January football still involves an inexpensive approach to addressing their blaring need for better quarterback play. 
Is it ideal? No.

But it’s far less ideal to be in this situation three years after taking the first quarterback off the board with 2017’s No. 2 overall pick. 

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Austin Hooper dubbed Bears' ideal free-agent target

Austin Hooper dubbed Bears' ideal free-agent target

The Bears are expected to be extremely busy in their effort to upgrade at tight end this offseason. In fact, they've already made their first move with the signing of veteran Demetrius Harris, but it's unlikely he'll be the only new player added at the position over the next few months.

The most appealing free-agent tight end who's likely to hit the open market is Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper, who was recently dubbed the ideal target for Bears GM Ryan Pace once the spending frenzy gets started.

Hooper is exactly the type of performer the Bears currently lack. He can provide a reliable outlet to make life easier on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Granted, the 25-year-old tight end shouldn't be viewed as a Travis Kelce-like difference-maker in head coach Matt Nagy's scheme, but he's the best option in thin free-agent and weak draft classes.

Hooper would be the dream acquisition for Chicago, but the dollars are unlikely to make sense. According to Spotrac, Hooper's market value will command a five-year, $49.9 million deal, or $9.9 million per season. If the Bears inked Hooper to a contract like that, they'd have nearly $19 million tied up in tight ends in 2020 (Trey Burton's contract counts as $8.5 million against the cap next season).

As much as Bears fans want more production at tight end, that's just too steep a price to pay regardless of how important the position is for Nagy's offense.

The better route for Pace to pursue is the 2020 NFL Draft, where Chicago could be the first team to draft a tight end in April. This year's class of tight end prospects is without a clear first-rounder and with the Bears' first pick coming at No. 43 overall, there's a good chance they could have their pick of the litter.

Prospects like Notre Dame's Cole Kmet, Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, and Washington's Hunter Bryant will all be given strong consideration in the first half of the second round.

It'll be another strike against Pace's work in free agency if he's forced out of the Hooper market because of the contract he gave Burton in 2018. But maybe it's for the best. He hasn't been very good at identifying tight ends since taking over as Chicago's GM in 2015 -- Khari Lee, Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen, Burton -- and probably shouldn't be trusted with the checkbook while searching for another one this offseason.

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