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:
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.
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.
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.
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.