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.