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Bears OL competition scenarios intensifying as draft approaches

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Bears OL competition scenarios intensifying as draft approaches

In the trough between the early weeks of free agency and the draft, another look is in order at the position group most responsible for the health of quarterback Jay Cutler and the career development of running backs Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford — the Bears offensive line.

This stems from a simple statement from Bears GM Ryan Pace that is being backed up by actions:

“[At] all these positions we’re going to keep trying create competition,” Pace said during last month’s owners meetings. “So that might be in the draft, that could be in the second or third wave of free agency.”

Coming from Pace, “in the draft” should be taken seriously. Over the past 11 years, with Pace in New Orleans for 10 and the Bears last year, his team has drafted at least one offensive lineman within the first six rounds, sometimes more than one, in nine of them. Five of those picks have come round-three or earlier.

Several major position points suggest themselves in the wake of the Bears’ offseason moves to this point:

Tackle

The main competitors: Kyle Long, Charles Leno Jr., Bobby Massie
And don’t forget: Nick Becton, Tayo Fabuluje

Coaching and personnel staffs may have been delighted with what Charles Leno Jr. gave them at left tackle last season, and with his year-one-to-year-two upside. But Leno no more played himself above competition than anyone outside of Kyle Long as far as a lock as a starter somewhere. And Long is his own story.

Long is effectively a huge wild card in the franchise’s overall, which bodes very well for both the organization as well as one of the NFL’s rising stars on the offensive line. Long will “compete,” but as he did last year, he represents a huge flex factor. One position “battle” last preseason was whether Vlad Ducasse was a better right guard than Jordan Mills was a right tackle; Long would play the other. When Ducasse proved better, Mills was cut and Long became a right tackle.

One scenario now is that Leno needs to demonstrate that he is a better left tackle than Bobby Massie is a right tackle. However that plays out, Long can project as the “other” tackle, again a big-picture Bears positive.

Think about it: Coaches have declared Long both a guard and a tackle over the past year-plus, meaning: Any conclusion that signing Massie from Arizona put in place the starting right tackle and allowed Long to return to right guard, scene of his two Pro Bowl years, may be premature.

[MORE: Bears to host defending Super Bowl champion Broncos in preseason opener]

Long will be at right guard, coach John Fox said, then held the door wide open. “He can play anything… . I just know he’s going to be real good somewhere and we’re going to put him where he can best help the team and I know he’d be open to that regardless.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a lock clicking shut at right guard.

Will Long balk at a move? Not likely. Besides his team-first mentality, Long can read not only a defense, but also a spread sheet.

Kelechi Osemele signed a contract this offseason paying him $13.2 million per season; he is the only guard with an average annual tab more than $9.5 million. Nine left tackles — more than 25 percent of the position group league-wide — are at $9.5 million or more.

Tackle, where the adversaries are typically the edge rushers who are the fastest of front-sevens, requires not only a different skill set and body type, but also a different mindset than guard. That’s for another look closer to training camp. Best guess is that Long, a mauler but a true student of his craft, can do the required at both spots, including left tackle. In just three seasons, he already has.

Guard

The competitors: Ted Larsen, Manny Ramirez, Matt Slauson.
And don’t forget: The draft and late free agency

Veteran interior blockers Ted Larsen and Manny Ramirez hardly agreed to one-year contracts in Chicago, with a team coming off a 6-10 season, without strong assurances that both had more than cursory opportunities to start. Both have started at center and guard in their NFL careers. In fact, both have double-digit starts at all three interior spots, meaning both guard positions are realistically in play.

Matt Slauson did not have a year that precluded the Bears from signing those two guard/centers. The message is that he needs to play better than he did in 2015, a year that saw him forced to flip between center and guard.

Center

The competitors: Hroniss Grasu, Ted Larsen, Manny Ramirez
And don’t forget: Matt Slauson

The Bears currently have four players with NFL starts at center. That defines “competition.”

Like Leno, coaches and the personnel department were pleased with what Grasu gave them as a mid-round draft pick in his rookie season. Like Leno, however, Grasu showed the normal need for adding NFL-grade strength that most rookies exhibit, and he did not play himself beyond the reach of real competition, particularly with three missed games due to a neck and one with a knee injury.

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“The things that give me confidence in him is he’s a smart guy, he’s a hard worker,” Pace said. “So all the things that he needs to do, you’re going to see an improvement from Year 1 to Year 2.”

Slauson started 12 games at left guard and four at center and has started all 16 games in five of the last six seasons. 

Larsen is expected to open at a guard spot but “expected” is a fluid notion this offseason.

That’s been Fox’s and Pace’s idea all along.

Taking a post draft, rookie-minicamp look at the Bears 2019 opponents: Weeks 11-17

Taking a post draft, rookie-minicamp look at the Bears 2019 opponents: Weeks 11-17

A lot has changed since the NFL released the 2019 schedule. Teams have added through the draft and free agency, and learned more about their rosters with rookie minicamps. Now with all that behind us, let’s take another look at which opposing rookies could make an impact in 2019. We’ll go over the first five opponents on Wednesday, the next four on Thursday and the last four on Friday.

Week 11 at Rams

If LA doesn’t re-sign Ndamukong Suh they’ll have a major vacancy on their defensive line: enter fourth-rounder Greg Gaines. The Rams traded back into the fourth round to snag Gaines, so clearly they think highly of the first team All-Pac-12 DL who had 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season at Washington.

Week 12 vs. Giants

The Giants made the biggest splash of the draft by selecting Daniel Jones No. 6 overall. Reactions to the picks in the media and on social media were very similar to when the Bears traded up to pick Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall in 2017, and Trubisky has already publicly given Jones advice for how to deal with the negative attention. Will Jones follow in Trubisky’s footsteps and have replaced Eli Manning under center by the time the Giants visit Chicago?

Week 13 at Lions

See Thursday’s preview of Bears’ opponents. 

Week 14 vs. Cowboys

Fourth-round pick Tony Pollard is the lesser-heralded running back from Memphis rather than Darrell Henderson, but he can run and catch. Over his last two seasons, he put up 782 rushing yards, 994 receiving yards and 15 total touchdowns. He also adds much needed depth to the Dallas running back room, as the leading rusher behind Ezekiel Elliott last season was Dak Prescott with 75 attempts for 305 yards. After that, it was Rod Smith with 44 attempts for 127 yards.

Week 15 at Packers

See Wednesday’s preview of Bears’ opponents.

Week 16 vs. Chiefs

If Tyreek Hill doesn’t play this year due to domestic violence allegations, second-round pick Mecole Hardman could get a lot of snaps at WR in his stead. Hardman can blow by defenders, like Hill, and ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the combine. That number was good for fifth-best among all participants this year. On the field for Georgia, he caught 35 balls for 543 yards and seven touchdowns. He added a punt return touchdown, as well.

Week 17 at Vikings

See Wednesday’s preview of Bears’ opponents.

Numbers game: What recent data tells us about expectations for David Montgomery and Kerrith Whyte Jr. 

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USA Today

Numbers game: What recent data tells us about expectations for David Montgomery and Kerrith Whyte Jr. 


A line has often been drawn between David Montgomery and Kareem Hunt, with the Bears’ third-round pick’s current and former coaches making that favorable skillset comparison. Both have similar running styles, both are adept pass-catchers, both were third round picks, both played for the same coaching staff in college, etc. 
 
“There are some clips that you can go back and forth and watch and say man, (Montgomery) kind of reminds me of Kareem," Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. "And you go back to cuts from (Hunt) too and you’re like man, that’s kind of strange, it looks a little like David there in that sense. They’re different, but I do think there are some similarities.”


The Montgomery-to-Hunt comparison carries with it lofty expectations. Hunt’s dynamic rookie year — under the watch of then-Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy — saw him gain a league-leading 1,327 yards on 272 carries (4.9 yards per attempt) with eight touchdowns, as well as catch 53 passes for 455 yards with three touchdowns. That level of production is the dream scenario for the Bears with Montgomery.

Hunt’s rookie year was, clearly, well above average. But how much above average was it? That was the question this article set out to answer. We wanted to build a baseline for what Montgomery’s rookie expectations should be. What it turned into was a dive into how all 257 rookie running backs who were on a 53-man roster in the last seven seasons fared, from Saquon Barkley to Taquan Mizzell. 

We’ll start here: Only running backs whose rookie seasons fell from 2012-2018 were included, given 2012 was the first draft conducted under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Plus, it’s recent enough to account for the NFL’s gradual (but hardly total) shift away from placing a high value on running backs. 

Receiving stats weren’t taken into account here, given how different offenses use different running backs in the receiving game — and how the Bears can reasonably expect Montgomery to be an above-average pass-catcher as a rookie. So only running statistics were used, which also hold the most importance for the 2019 Bears after Jordan Howard’s uneven 2018 season. 

Also, compiling these numbers wouldn't have been possible without the essential Pro Football Reference Play Index. 

Beginning with a wide lens, the average production for a rookie running back over the last seven years — drafted or undrafted — is 56 carries for 243 yards (4.3 yards per attempt) with 1 1/2 touchdowns. But that’s not a totally useful measuring stick, given it includes 121 undrafted free agents, and 47 of those UDFAs didn’t receive a single carry in their rookie seasons. 

The 136 running backs who were drafted from 2012-2018 have a meatier average: 88 carries, 371 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 2 1/2 touchdowns. Or, another way: That’s about a third of Howard’s 2018 totals (250 carries, 935 yards, 9 touchdowns) while improving his average yards per carry by a half yard. 

Drilling deeper: Third round running backs — 18 players, highlighted by Hunt — put together an average season of 108 attempts, 473 yards (4.4 yards per attempt) and 2.9 touchdowns. That feels like a good starting point for Montgomery, especially if he’s being used as part of a time-share with Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen. 

Perhaps something closer to what Arizona’s David Johnson did his rookie year is better, adding a few more carries and removing a couple of touchdowns (125 carries, 581 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns). If that’s what Montgomery winds up doing in 2019, it’ll be an improvement over Howard — and an even more pronounced one if Davis winds up being effective, too. 

What about Kerrith Whyte Jr.?

The thought here is we’ll see Whyte battle with Mizzell in the coming weeks and months for a roster spot that carries with it a small role in Nagy’s offense (Mizzell, for all the consternation about him, only played 6.5 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018). He’s not the first, second or third option, but as a speedy change-of-pace guy he does carry some intrigue as another weapon in Nagy’s arsenal. 

It’s rare for seventh round running backs to make much of an impact on the ground their rookie years, with the Eagles’ Bryce Brown having the best season not only in this timespan, but in the last 20 years, with 564 yards on 115 carries (4.9 yards/attempt) with four touchdowns in 2012. Only four of the 18 seventh round running backs in the last seven seasons have averaged more than four yards per carry. 

Round-by-round data

Ryan Pace has picked a running back in the third round (Montgomery), fourth round twice (Cohen, Jeremy Langford), fifth round (Howard) and seventh round (Whyte) during his five years as Bears’ general manager. The three guys who’ve played — Langford, Howard, Cohen — were all rookie-year successes, to varying extents: Howard’s 1,313 yards in 2016 are the sixth-most for a rookie running back since 2012; only two fourth-round picks in the same timespan rushed for more yards than Langford’s 537 in 2015 (Andre Williams, Samaje Perine). Cohen’s impact, of course, goes beyond his on-the-ground production. 

The point here being that Pace has a track record of finding productive mid-round running backs, even if we’re only talking about three players here. That’s a good skill for a general manager to have; plenty smart observers consider it wasteful to use a first round pick on a running back, let alone a top 10 selection, which Pace had in his first four drafts. 

Naturally, though, it’s easier to find an immediately productive running back earlier in the draft than later. But that there have been standout players to come from nearly every round of the draft (and from the undrafted free agent pool) bolsters the compelling case for not using high picks on running backs. The round-by-round averages are:

First round (11 players): 212 attempts, 934 yards, 4.4 YPC, 7.4 TDs
Best season: Ezekiel Elliott (322 attempts, 1,631 yards, 5.1 YPC, 15 TDs)

Second round (19 players): 135 attempts, 572 yards, 4.2 YPC, 4.2 TDs
Best season: Jeremy Hill (222 attempts, 1,124 yards, 5.1 YPC, 9 TDs)

Third round (18 players): 108 attempts, 473 yards, 4.4 YPC, 2.9 TDs
Best season: Kareem Hunt (272 attempts, 1,327 yards, 4.9 YPC, 8 TDs)

Fourth round (26 players): 82 attempts, 312 yards, 3.8 YPC, 1.9 TDs
Best season: Andre Williams (217 attempts, 721 yards, 3.3 YPC, 7 TDs)
— Includes 1 player who did not receive a carry


Fifth round (22 players): 71 attempts, 310 yards, 4.4 YPC, 1.8 TDs
Best season: Jordan Howard (252 attempts, 1,313 yards, 5.2 YPC, 6 TDs
— Includes 2 players who did not receive a carry


Sixth round (23 players): 43 attempts, 183 yards, 4.3 YPC, 1.0 TDs
Best season: Alfred Morris (335 attempts, 1,613 yards, 4.8 YPC, 13 TDs)
— Includes 6 players who did not receive a carry


Seventh round (18 players): 28 attempts, 109 yards, 3.9 YPC, 0.6 TDs
Best season: Bryce Brown (115 attempts, 564 yards, 4.9 YPC, 4 TDs)
— Includes 5 players who did not a receive a carry


Undrafted free agent average (121 players): 20 attempts, 88 yards, 4.4 YPC, 0.5 TDs
Best season: Phillip Lindsay (192 carries, 1,037 yards, 5.4 YPC, 9 TDs)
— Includes 47 players who did not receive a carry


If you want a look at the full, raw data, click here.

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