Bears

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. 

Bears, Matt Nagy working at work-rest balance equation to pull back from annual injury abyss

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USA TODAY

Bears, Matt Nagy working at work-rest balance equation to pull back from annual injury abyss

The Bears are at rest right now. The weeks between the end of the final minicamp and the start of the “season” that runs from the start of training camp through the final game represent the last time most if not all players will be truly 100 percent until early 2019.

In not too many days the Bears will begin their training camp, upshifting the pace, depth and urgency of formation of the 2018 team. Along with that comes the annual dilemma, not unique to the Bears, of balancing practice and strength training to achieve the football maximum while simultaneously staying within a plan calculated to minimize what has become a Bears curse since the departure of the Lovie Smith staff:

Injuries.

Injuries not confined to camp and practices, but also to creating a landscape that results in minimizing injuries throughout the season. And it is a complex equation that the Bears are trying to balance, one that reaches beyond football and involves complicated factors.

Matt Nagy is putting a small fingerprint of his own, instituting an 8:15 a.m. start time for the vast majority of Bourbonnais practices, “to keep guys out of the heat for the most part,” Nagy said.

Practice limitations have been mandated by virtue of collective bargaining agreements. The quirk for the Bears has been that as practice intensity has been legislated downward, injury totals (using players on IR as an apples-to-apples measure) have risen. The debate then has gone to whether lessened practices in fact saves players or ironically results in more injuries in games because players have not been sufficiently hardened for the intensity spike that games are.

Along with that is the need to truly learn schemes and plays in live action.

“I think football is a game, like many games, that you have to get calloused to,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said during minicamp. “It’s like when we go out the first day of training camp with pads on, and guys are hitting a little bit. You’re going to be taken aback and get mad that the guy just hit you too hard. But then by a week or two later, you’re getting hit like that and don’t even realize it. You gotta get calloused.

“So I do believe, even though you couldn’t prove it objectively or quantify it, I do believe that it’s a problem.”

Do the Bears need to rest more?

Nagy has seen the value of rest. Andy Reid, the head coach when Nagy worked in Philadelphia and Kansas City, is a lofty 16-3 in games after off-weeks during his coaching career. Last year his Chiefs did lose a road game post-bye, but Reid was 4-0 in Kansas City’s other games coming off more than the normal six days between games.

Other than the Bears, the five teams with the greatest number of schedule-created off days in the 2017 season appeared to put the time to good use:

Team Off days 2017 record (*playoffs)
Kansas City 12 10-6*
Buffalo 8 9-7*
Chicago 8 5-11
San Diego 8 9-7
Philadelphia 7 13-3*

A case can be made that recovery days are often as important as the effort days, that athletes perform better after their bodies have had even a brief window to heal. Coaches, too. As one Tour de France cyclist told this writer, people go too hard on the easy days, so they don’t fully recover, and too easy on the hard days.

Two-a-day, padded full-go practices were once the norm. Now consecutive padded practices don’t happen in-season, and even in camp, the objective is not as it once was, to weed out, but to develop. “I think back in the day you could say that it was ‘super-hard,’” Nagy said. “Now I’m not sure you’d consider it ‘super-hard.’”

The correlation between rest and results is far from exact. Marc Trestman was adamant about players getting off their feet after practices, and yet few teams sustained the level of injury, particularly on defense, that his Bears did. Lovie Smith’s practices were in the heat of the days, camp and other, with occasional night practices as prep for night games.

Year Coach Camp practice Year-end IR
2012 Lovie Smith 2/2:30 p.m., 7 p.m. (three) 6
2013-14 Marc Trestman 9 a.m., 3:15 p.m. (three) 6, 10
2015-17 John Fox 9:35/11:15 a.m. 12, 21, 19

Apart from any empirical or other scientific information, anecdotal evidence suggests that rest is a significant factor in influencing outcomes. The most elementary casual indicator is the importance teams, coaches and players universally assign to in-season off-weeks. The break period is utilized for self-scouting, which is going on constantly anyway, but also for getting healthy.

If the cluster of a few days off (players are routinely given the off-weekend plus the preceding day or two to themselves) has some demonstrable physical benefits, then any structuring of normal weeks to build in recovery time stands to reason as a step toward healing during a 17-week stretch that leaves no one completely healthy.

But it’s not that simple, particularly in-season. “They’ll have off on Monday, then be back on Tuesday,” Nagy said. “And with the game-planning, you have to build that in, obviously.”

Positive offseason

At the risk of installing a jinx here, the Bears came through the offseason program without apparent severe injuries, and with key players (Leonard Floyd, Kyle Long, Allen Robinson) being brought along conservatively in their returns from ’17 season-ending injuries. At the same time, the requisite work was put in installing a new offense and reigniting a returning defense.

Training camp and preseason now are next-level intensity, and the Bears lost offensive linemen Eric Kush and Jordan Morgan, receiver Cam Meredith and long snapper Pat Scales in the time frame between the start of camp and the start of the regular season.

The objective moves to another level of managing the balance between preserving bodies for when it matters and getting done the work that has to be covered. Some of that was accomplished with some understandings of historical perspectives.

“I told the guys the analogy the other day, the history of training camp in the NFL where there was no such thing as OTA’s years ago,” Fangio said. “But years ago there were six preseason games and two-a-days for all that time. Then it went down to four preseason games and two-a-day’s. And when I say ‘two-a-days,’ they were two-a-days several days in a row.

“Now we’re to one-a-day’s with some legislated days off in there. These [offseason] practices are those practices that we’re missing that teams from the past had gotten. We view them as very, very important, and our guys have had good focus. So we’re working on the same stuff we always have, but I try to tell them that this isn’t an ‘OTA practice;’ this is a training camp for the guys of yesteryear without pads on.”

Tarik Cohen named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team

Tarik Cohen named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team

The Chicago Bears are entering 2018 with one of the best young backfields in the NFL. The combination of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will give defenses nightmares all season long, especially when both players are on the field at the same time. Howard brings a physical and grinding running style while Cohen can take it the distance from anywhere on the field.

Cohen's field-flipping ability makes him especially dangerous in the return game. He's so dangerous, in fact, that he was named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team as a returner.

Cohen contributed in every which way for the Bears in 2017, bringing an explosive element to Chicago's run game, pass game and return game. He finished in the top 10 in punt-return and kick-return average.

Cohen ended his rookie season with 87 carries for 370 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He added 53 catches for 353 yards and one touchdown as a receiver. He gained 272 yards and a touchdown on punt returns and 583 more on kick returns, bringing his season totals to 1,583 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.

First-year coach Matt Nagy has been smitten with Cohen since the offseason workouts began. He's expected to use the second-year back a lot more than John Fox and Dowell Loggains did in 2017 which should give the 'human joystick' even more opportunities to make the kind of plays that will make him one of the NFL's most feared offensive weapons.