Bears

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.

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Former Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman remains unsigned after being released earlier this offseason following a 2019 season that totaled 14 games and a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.

Freeman, who earned back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl in 2015-16, was at one time considered one of the NFL's top dual-threat running backs. His best season came in 2015 when he ran for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding another 578 yards and three scores as a receiver. In 2016, he ran for a career-best 1,079 yards and 11 scores.

Injuries derailed what was a promising start to his career. He hasn't played a full 16 games in any of the last three years and in 2018, he missed 14 games with foot and groin injuries. 

Are Freeman's best days behind him? Maybe. Running backs tend to decline the closer they get to 30 years old, and at 28, Freeman is inching closer to the end of his career than its beginning. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have value for a team like the Bears, who lack any semblance of depth behind starter David Montgomery.

Chicago's running back depth chart is void of any real NFL talent behind Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, and let's face it, Cohen is more of a satellite weapon than he is a true running back.

So what's stopping the Bears from pursuing Freeman? Money.

Freeman is holding out for a reasonable payday that, apparently, involves demands beyond what the Seahawks offered in May (one-year, $4 million). The Bears, who still have in-house business to take care of, including an extension for wide receiver Allen Robinson, aren't going to offer Freeman a contract in that range. And they shouldn't. Montgomery is the unquestioned starter and that won't change even if a player like Freeman is added. As a result, he'll get a contract consistent with what's paid to a backup with starter's upside.

Remember: Freeman signed a five-year, $41.2 million extension with the Falcons in 2017, and like most players who believe they still have a lot left in the tank, he doesn't appear willing to lower his value by such an extreme amount.

Still, the market will determine Freeman's next deal. And if he's still hanging around and unsigned as training camp approaches, the Bears could find themselves in a favorable position to land an extremely talented running back at a mega-discount.

Chicago's offense will hinge on how productive the running game is in 2020. It would make sense to improve its chances of success by adding more talent. Freeman could be that guy, at the right price.

What would 1985 Chicago Bears look like if they played in 2020?

What would 1985 Chicago Bears look like if they played in 2020?

“We’re gonna do the shuffle then ring your bell,” sang Gary Fencik back in 1985. 

The updated lyrics in 2020 would be: “We’re gonna do the shuffle then get a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.” 

Football today is a largely different game compared to when the Bears won their only Super Bowl in franchise history. You’ll see that when Super Bowl XX is aired on NBC this Sunday at 2 p.m. CT. But as I went back and watched some highlights ahead of catching the full game on Sunday, I wondered: What from the ’85 Bears would still work in the NFL today?

MORE: 10 crazy stats about the 1985 Bears

Talent, of course, transcends eras. Walter Payton would still be a great running back in 2020. Richard Dent would still be one of those pass rushers offenses have to gameplan around. Mike Singletary’s versatility, toughness and instincts would make him one of the league’s top linebackers. But that’s not what I was wondering. 

The Bears’ first offensive play of Super Bowl XX — on which Payton lost a fumble — came with two wide receivers, one tight end, one running back and one fullback on the field, otherwise known as 21 personnel. There was nothing odd about it back then. 

Only 8 percent of the NFL’s plays in 2019 used 21 personnel. 

The San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings were the only two teams to use 21 personnel on more than 20 percent of their plays, and both teams made the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo, remember, threw eight passes while the 49ers throttled the Green Bay Packers on their way to the Super Bowl back in January. 

Payton and Matt Suhey would’ve been just fine in today’s NFL running from under center quite a bit. But consider this: Jim McMahon’s passer rating in 1985 was 82.6, good for seventh-best in the league. Mitch Trubisky’s passer rating in 2019 was 83.0, ranking him 28th. 

How about Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense? 

I dug up this video we did a few years ago with Rex Ryan explaining his dad’s defense — which, while it turned out to be great at stopping the run, was actually designed to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Check it out:

The Bears’ defense in 1985 is, arguably, the best in NFL history. The Bears held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry and 12.4 points per game, the lowest averages in the league. Dent led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks and, maybe the most mind-blowing stat of all: The Bears’ defense allowed 16 passing touchdowns and had 34 interceptions. 

But putting eight guys in the box doesn’t seem like a sound strategy in today’s pass-happy, 11 personnel-heavy league — a league that often forces defensive coordinators’ base packages to be in nickel. To wit: San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman faced the highest percentage of “loaded” boxes in 2019, with 40.2 percent of his 137 rushing attempts coming with eight or more defenders near the line of scrimmage. 

The Bears’ defense only had to defend multiple backs (i.e. a running back and a fullback) on 120 plays in 2019. 

So the 46 defense might not work in 2020. Then again, who would doubt Ryan’s ability to coordinate a good defense against today’s modern NFL landscape?

This is all building to my overarching feeling thinking about the 1985 Bears: They'd be fine in today's NFL. Greatness can transcend era. It might take a few tweaks and they wouldn't look the same as you'll see on NBC Sports Network on Sunday afternoon. 

But who am I to say one of the greatest teams of all time wouldn't be great in any era? 

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