The Bears have three options on their roster to start on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the first game of — in all likelihood — the post-Kyle Long era in Chicago. Is a guy who’s only played 30 snaps as a guard in his pro or college career really the right choice?
Rashaad Coward may be new to the position, but the Bears like his athleticism, physical edge and work ethic he brings to the offense. Also in the conversation: 10-year veteran Ted Larsen and undrafted rookie Alex Bars.
Coward has more immediate upside, but Larsen (who's officially questionable with a knee injury, though he practiced in full Friday) is more a you-know-what-you're-getting guy. Coward's upside, though, lies in the athleticism and physicality he showed in limited time against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.
“He’s a tough guy, he plays very, very hard,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “It’s super important to him, he’s very prideful, he’s very determined to keep his guy from making a play and that’s a big part of this.”
That Hiestand has actual game film on which to evaluate and teach Coward is important. And the Bears saw him do some good things in letting his raw talent take over against the Vikings.
“Going into the game, I was like F it,” Coward said. “It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t.”
Coward said on Monday he practiced with the No. 1 offense, and given Larsen was limited in Wednesday's and Thursday's practices, there's a decent chance Coward will start on Sunday.
Larsen, though, is the kind of guy who could get the nod on Sunday without getting many reps during mid-week practices.
Larsen suffered the injury in Week 4, which led to Coward entering the game, and he didn’t travel to London with the Bears in Week 5. But his veteran experience — he’s started 87 games in his career — and flexibility to play guard or center make him a trusted backup.
“I played a lot of football,” Larsen said. “I’m ready whenever they want to use me.”
There is a possibility the Bears rotate Larsen and Coward on a series-to-series basis, as the team did with a veteran (Eric Kush) and a greenhorn (James Daniels) at left guard last year.
"It’s something that could definitely happen," Nagy said. "I’m not opposed to that. And then you can also balance and see, whether it’s Ted or Rashaad, how are they playing and we can get a feel for that during a game and we feel comfortable with both."
Bars is unlikely to factor this week but does have long-term upside. He turned down an opportunity to join the New England Patriots’ 53-man roster earlier this month because he saw a better opportunity in Chicago. That his college offensive line coach is now his pro offensive line coach certainly played into that decision, too.
Many thought Bars would be a mid-round draft pick prior to his final season at Notre Dame, but a torn ACL and MCL suffered last September knocked him down to being an undrafted free agent. The opportunity to link back up with Hiestand helped bring him to Chicago, where he played well during the preseason — but not well enough to make the Bears’ initial 53-man roster.
“The transition to this level coming off the injury was an adjustment I had to make, still making it every day,” Bars said. “I’m trying to improve and work against really, really good guys.”
The Bears’ starting right guard for the rest of 2019 will hardly be settled by who starts against the Saints in Week 7. Coward may get the first crack, but if his inexperience overshadows his talent, the Bears may need to call on a safer option in Larsen. And that could open the door for Bars to start, too, if he proves to Hiestand behind the scenes he’s back on the track he was on prior to his collegiate injury.
Whoever plays, though, needs to be better than Long was over his four games prior to going on injured reserve. The Bears made that difficult decision in part to improve at right guard. It’s now on Coward — or Larsen, or Bars — to make good on that promise.
"Between the three of them I think it will be fun for us to kind of work through what decision, where we want to go with that," Nagy said. "And then whoever it is, let's go. There's no looking back."