Charles Leno

2020 Bears Roster Review: How much room for improvement does O-Line have?

2020 Bears Roster Review: How much room for improvement does O-Line have?

Bears Roster Review is a weekly conversation about the state of the 2020 Bears roster from JJ Stankevitz and Cam Ellis. This week: the offensive line. 

CAM ELLISJJ, hello again. We're back for our next edition of the 2020 Bears Roster Review, and today we're taking a look at the offensive line. In 2018 we were all over the moon because the unit was cohesive and going to stay together for the foreseeable future, and now under two years later it feels like that's actually a problem. I'm not sure how alarmist I want to be about the offensive line yet - where are you at?

J.J. STANKEVITZI'm concerned this is 2019's tight ends all over again. Which I guess makes me an alarmist! Last year, it felt like the Bears didn't do enough to address their issues at tight end in the offseason, and then went on to have one of the worst tight end rooms in recent football memory. The Bears' offensive line is better, talent and depth-wise, of course but signing Germain Ifedi and Jason Spriggs and drafting two guys in the seventh round didn't feel like a major commitment to this unit. 

Now, if Juan Castillo can mesh with Matt Nagy and wring the kind of run blocking necessary for Nagy to trust his run game more, maybe this'll be better. But I'm definitely concerned this group could be a weakness in 2020. 

ELLIS: That's certainly what the team's trying to tell us, right? That Leno-Daniels-Whitehair-TBD-Massie works as a unit, just coached in a different manner. I'm not going to pretend that I have the scouting acumen to know if that's truly the case, and part of me wonders if people got caught up in assuming the Bears moved on from Hiestand simply because of football reasons. Matt Nagy's emphasis on culture comes off trite, but it's not inauthentic, either. He lives for that stuff. I say this because I do think the starters are more talented than they're getting credit for. 

They need to figure out what's going on with Daniels and Whitehair at center, but I think all four of those guys are starting caliber players.

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STANKEVITZ: You're absolutely right - Leno, Daniels, Whitehair and Massie are all solid NFL starters. The issue I see is there isn't one dude in there who can *destroy* you or play at a true Pro Bowl level. Whitehair and Daniels could if the Bears could finally settle on keeping them at one position for a long period of time (I think Whitehair is still better at guard and Daniels at center). 

For a long time, that guy was Kyle Long, right? But effectively replacing him -- even though he wasn't *Kyle Long* in a few years -- with Ifedi or Rashaad Coward feels like a step backward, and not to what they really need to bring this O-line together. 

ELLIS: Especially when so much run success is predicated on dominant guard play. As it pertains to Whitehair/James: how much stock should be put into the idea of Daniels' more reserved-personality not meshing well with what's traditionally asked of the position? My first instinct is to not give that much credit, but hearing Olin Kruetz and Kyle Long suggest otherwise made me wonder if the Bears feel that way. 

STANKEVITZ: I don't think every offensive lineman has to be as nasty as Olin or Long was but that was sort of my point above - the Bears don't have a brawler on their O-line anymore, and having just one of those guys can make a difference. Daniels is super talented and can be crafty with his technique, but no, isn't a brawler. I don't see him as the problem here - the problem is the Bears might not have done enough to address right guard with one of those brawling types. 

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ELLIS: Yeah. And personally, I had a hard time getting a read on how the Bears felt about Cowards' progression last season. Pace said that h is a 'work in progress, and we feel good about it' back in April, but if I had a nickle for every time he said that, etc. Taking fliers on Spriggs and Ifedi, like you mentioned, tells me they like him enough to consider him the definitive starter right now. But the depth isn't inspiring. 

I'm not sure how much the QB Battle actually matters if more than one of their starters gets seriously hurt this year... 

STANKEVITZ: One way to read it is the Bears liked Coward's progression enough to not absolutely replace him in the offseason. Ifedi didn't sign for starter money and they didn't draft a true guard (Arlington Hambright might wind up there, but he's a 7th round rookie, so probably not really in this discussion). Another way to view it, though, is Nagy and Pace saw their most important offseason acquisition as Juan Castillo. I think the first option is more hopeful than the second. 

Castillo might be able to get better play out of the Bears' O-line. But man...have you seen the guys Harry Hiestand developed at Notre Dame? Ronnie Stanley, Zack Martin, Nick Martin, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey would be the best offensive line in football if they were all together. You're telling me *that* guy isn't the best coach for your offensive line? I don't know if I buy it. 

ELLIS: Yeah, I've actually never heard anyone say anything but good things about Hiestand. That being said, it wouldn't be the first time a move was made simply to get a different voice in the room. We love to say it smugly when players get the short end of the stick, but it really applies to coaches too: the NFL's a business. 

On the outside, I'm curious where you fall on Leno. I'm not sure there's a more divisive player on the Bears? I spent my entire dog walk this morning (26 mins baby) trying to decide on a player who split Bears fans -- and media -- more than Leno and I don't think I can. 

STANKEVITZ: Yeah. That's legit! I fall into the camp of Charles Leno being a good football player who you can win with at left tackle. 

I think Leno gets unfair attention at times, but that's all left tackles, right? They always will be focused on because they protect the blind side. But Leno is what he is - he's not the biggest dude or the most athletic guy, which is why he was a seventh round pick. But he's good with his technique and also is paid fairly - his contract has the 13th-highest amount of guaranteed money among left tackles in the NFL, per Spotrac. 

That being said, the Bears do have an easy-ish out on him after the 2020 season - they could save a little over $6 million in cap space while absorbing $5 million in dead money if they cut him. I think he sticks around for 2021, though, because the money isn't bad. 

ELLIS: I'm worried that the penalties Might Be A Thing, though. Having at least 12 in two of the last three years is a red flag.

STANKEVITZ: The penalties don't reflect well on him. But as he told me back during the season, "some of them (were) bullshit."

Could the Bears have a better left tackle? Sure. Would it be a simple fix to replace Leno with someone else? Not so much. 

ELLIS: Something I found interesting, too, is that while the Bears have allotted the third-highest amount of space of their cap to the offensive line (roughly $31 million, or 14.6%), that number's actually quite low league wide (23rd). 

Which I think just emphasizes the point you were making about having a hard time being mad at the production they've gotten compared to the dollars they've spent. And also puts Khalil Mack's contract into perspective.

STANKEVITZ: t's not as simple as saying you get what you pay for when it comes to offensive line play, but in a rough way, you do. The Raiders have a really good offensive line. So do the Colts and the Titans and Patriots and Packers. Those teams comprise the NFL's top five in offensive line spending. The Bears being so low -- especially with only one starter on a rookie contract -- is telling. 

So what's the best-case for this line? Is it being about league-average? Is it being just good enough to keep Trubisky/Foles upright and allowing Nagy to feel more comfortable running the ball?

ELLIS: I think it's all about keeping Trubisky/Foles upright. Even in 2018 when things were OK, they were far better in pass protection than they were in the run game. Matt Nagy wants to throw the ball and until he doesn't, his offensive lines are going to reflect that. There's obvious room for improvement on the ground but I think Nagy's made his thoughts on running the ball crystal clear. I don't expect anything incredible from anyone they added in the offseason, but it wouldn't surprise me if the starters play better than they did last year.  

STANKEVITZ: Bears fans have to hope so. Otherwise, like you said earlier - it might not really matter who wins the QB battle. 

Which cuts should the Bears make to free up cap space for free agency?

Which cuts should the Bears make to free up cap space for free agency?

With less than a month until the NFL’s free agency period begins, the Bears have a paucity of cap space — a little under $15 million, per the NFLPA’s public report. They also have significant needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, as well as quarterback. 

Add in the need for changes coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, and the Bears will have some difficult decisions ahead as Ryan Pace re-tools his 2020 roster.

The Bears have 10 players who, by cutting or extending them, would net at least $1 million in 2020 salary cap savings (this list does not include Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, who could net cap savings but aren't going anywhere and also aren't due for extensions). Some of the decisions to cut these players will not be difficult; others will be. A look at these players, and what the Bears’ verdict on each should be (all cap savings figures are via Spotrac):

Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (potential cap savings: $13.222 million)

The case for cutting: Floyd’s fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury only and does not carry any dead money, so the Bears could nearly double their cap space without any monetary drawbacks. Floyd only had three sacks in 2019, his fourth year in the NFL, and has not made good on his top-10-picked upside as a fearsome speed rusher. His sack totals have decreased every year he’s been in the league despite playing full 16-game seasons in 2018 and 2019. 

The case for keeping: Pace has valued Floyd’s versatility from the day he drafted him, and the Bears still appreciate the things the former No. 9 overall pick can do that don’t involve rushing the passer. He’s good against the run and can be trusted to drop into coverage, and to his credit hasn’t missed a game since a freak season-ending knee injury in 2017. 

The verdict: The Bears could present Floyd with an ultimatum to either sign a contract extension — one which lowers his cap hit for 2020 but doesn’t provide significant guarantees after, say, 2021 — or be released. Floyd wouldn’t command $13 million per year on a deep open market headlined by Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler Jr. and (possibly) Yannick Ngakoue. While he does do some important things in a 3-4 defense, his inability to win one-on-one matchups while Khalil Mack is double- and triple-teamed make that $13.222 million figure feel too high. If he’s not interested in an extension and wants to bet on himself in 2020, the Bears can get cheaper and better here. 

Wide receiver Allen Robinson (potential cap savings: $13 million)

The case for cutting: There is none. Robinson was one of the select few players on the 2019 Bears to improve off his 2018 season, and he’s a critically important piece for the Bears’ efforts to improve their offense in 2020. 

The case for keeping: The Bears should sign Robinson to a contract extension to not only lock him up for the next few years, but to lower his 2020 cap hit from its current $15 million figure. Just spitballing here: How about a four-year, $68 million offer with over half the money guaranteed? The 26-year-old Robinson earned a rich extension based on what he’s done both on the field and off the field since coming to Chicago two years ago. 

The verdict: Signing Robinson to an extension should be the Bears’ No. 1 priority before they begin exploring other ways to create cap space in 2020. 

Cornerback Prince Amukamara (potential cap savings: $9 million)

The case for cutting: That’s a lot of money to be saved for a guy who hasn't had an interception in three of his last four seasons. Amukamara turns 30 in June and may not be a candidate for an extension based on his age. Replacing him with a cheaper free agent and a draft pick would make sense. 

The case for keeping: Amukamara’s ability to cleanly play press coverage is not an easily-replaceable trait. He committed only one penalty after Week 3 of 2019, and while he doesn’t make game-wrecking plays, his skills allow Chuck Pagano to do some different things with his coverages and blitzes. The Bears' defense likely will be worse off without Amukamara. 

The verdict: Amukamara is the player the Bears should have the most difficult time cutting or keeping. He’s an important voice in the locker room as a former Super Bowl winner, and his ability to avoid being penalized while playing physical coverage is valuable in a league that can over-emphasize pass interference flags. But: the Bears could plug two holes with the cap savings generated by releasing Amukamara, and his contract was designed with the possibility of releasing him before 2020 in mind. It'd be a tough, but reasonable, decision. 

Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (potential cap savings: $4.75 million)

The case for cutting: Patterson didn’t become the explosive offensive weapon the Bears imagined he could be a year ago. He averaged 6.6 yards on his 28 touches — both the second-lowest numbers in his seven-year career — and played fewer than 10 offensive snaps in seven of 16 games. His special teams play was outstanding, but as Matt Nagy said after the Bears signed him last March: “If we were bringing him here just to return kicks … I mean, I'd be lying to you.”

The case for keeping: Patterson was an All-Pro kick returner, and his special teams impact extended beyond that into some standout play in punt coverage. His average of 29.5 yards per kick return ranked second in the NFL, and he had a 102-yard return score against the New Orleans Saints in Week 7. With special teams ace Sherrick McManis a free agent, the Bears may not want to drain reliable talent from Chris Tabor’s special teams units. 

The verdict: If signing a, say, starting safety like Vonn Bell means needing to cut Patterson, it’s a move the Bears should make. But he’s a guy who does impact games, and if the Bears can keep him without taking away from the starters they need to sign, they should do it. 

Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (potential cap savings: $4.5 million)

The case for cutting: Gabriel missed seven games due to a pair of concussions in 2019 and has limited additional upside, averaging 7.4 yards per target in each of his last three seasons. He’s shown flashes as a deep threat, but his average of 2.7 yards after catch per reception would’ve ranked 148 out of 155 qualified receivers had he played enough in 2019. Not all of that is his fault, with quarterback and scheme issues diminishing his effectiveness, but $4.5 million could be used elsewhere. 

The case for keeping: Gabriel was a sneakily-effective weapon in 2018 as someone who could make touch catches at the sticks and haul in the occasional deep ball. If healthy, he’s a reliable No. 3 or No. 4 target in an offense, and he does have a good rapport with Mitch Trubisky — which does matter if Trubisky still is the starter in 2020. 

The verdict: Cutting Gabriel would mean needing to find a speed threat while also relying on 2019 fourth-round pick Riley Ridley and/or 2018 seventh-round pick Javon Wims more within the offense, but saving $4.5 million in cap space for a guy who did miss nearly half of last season feels too enticing for the Bears to pass up. 

Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. (potential cap savings: $2.918 million)

The case for cutting: Only four offensive linemen committed more penalties than Leno’s 13 in 2019, while he’s underrated as a pass blocker he hasn’t been a solution for the Bears’ run blocking woes. 

The case for keeping: Leno carries a dead cap figure of $7.376 million, and it’d be difficult for the Bears to find a better player than him with their meager amount of cap space, other needs on the roster and lack of draft capital. Leno is still only 28, is remarkably durable and currently has the 17th lowest cap hit among left tackles in 2020. 

The verdict: There’s no reason for the Bears to move on from Leno in 2020. He stays. 

Punter Pat O’Donnell (potential cap savings: $1.75 million)

The case for cutting: That figure may not seem like much, but for a cap-strapped team like the Bears swapping O’Donnell for a young, league-minimum punter might make sense. For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus rated O’Donnell as the NFL’s second-worst punter in 2020. 

The case for keeping: If other cuts are made elsewhere, the Bears may not need to pinch pennies here. Tabor’s internal evaluation of O’Donnell may not match up with PFF’s, too, and the Bears may not want to create uncertainty at an otherwise-stable position. 

The verdict: It may be easier said than done to cut O’Donnell and find an undrafted free agent to punt for six figures in 2020, but it’s a path the Bears should try — especially if it means they can hang on to someone like Patterson. 

Tight end Ben Braunecker (potential cap savings: $1.468 million) 

The case for cutting: Braunecker has 13 receptions over his four years with the Bears and landed on injured reserve with a concussion last year. The Bears' overhaul at tight end began this week with the reported signing of Demetrius Harris, who might be a better version of Braunecker: A guy who can play both the "U" and "Y" while contributing on special teams. 

The case for keeping: As with Patterson, cutting an important special teams player while losing someone like McManis feels a little risky, especially with Braunecker’s 2020 cap hit coming in well under $2 million. If he's the Bears’ fourth or fifth tight end, that’s a good spot for someone who knows the offense and does well to contribute on special teams. 

The verdict: If the Bears' tight end depth chart has Trey Burton, a different No. 1 at the "Y," Harris, J.P. Holtz and a draft pick, Braunecker could be squeezed out of a roster spot. But he's worth keeping around through OTAs and training camp and should not be among the Bears' pre-free agency cuts. 

Tight end Adam Shaheen (potential cap savings: $1.271 million)

The case for cutting: Shaheen has not lived up to his hyperbolic “Baby Gronk” potential, catching just nine passes for 74 yards in 2019 before being shut down due to ineffectiveness and then injury halfway through the season. The writing has been on the wall for Shaheen to be released since he was a healthy scratch last November. 

The case for keeping: He’s cheap? Pace’s end-of-season comment about liking what he’s seen from Shaheen when he’s played was disingenuous at best and misguided at worst. If the Bears really want to see if he can still make good on his upside, he's inexpensive enough to keep around through the offseason program and training camp, but Pace cannot approach 2020 counting on Shaheen to contribute. 

The verdict: The Bears need to find multiple new tight ends over the next two and a half months, and won’t have a place on the roster for Shaheen. Investing his cap savings into a different backup tight end, or some depth at safety or inside linebacker, would be a better use of those funds. 

Tight end Trey Burton (potential cap savings: $1.05 million)

The case for cutting: Burton’s 2019 was a disaster, with the “U” tight end neither healthy nor effective during his second year with the Bears. The Bears cannot afford to have a tight end take up $8.55 million in cap space to average 3.5 yards per target, as Burton did in eight games last year. The position Burton plays is pivotal for the health of Nagy’s offense, and an upgrade there is necessary. 

The case for keeping: A shade over $1 million — with $7.5 million in dead cap — is not enough to justify releasing a guy who, in 2018, was a solid part of the Bears’ offense. The Bears’ best bet is to see if Burton is healthy in training camp before making a decision on his future with the team. Better depth behind him is a must, but he could still be part of the solution to the Bears’ tight end woes. 

The verdict: Keep Burton around and, if he’s not healthy or effective by Labor Day weekend, think about releasing him them. But the money says the Bears need to give Burton another chance this summer, even if they also go out and sign someone like Eric Ebron to also play the "U." 

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Bears All-Decade Team: Kyle Long, Charles Leno anchor O-line

Bears All-Decade Team: Kyle Long, Charles Leno anchor O-line

The Chicago Bears wrapped up their 100th season of football in disappointing fashion, but the 2010s provided Bears fans with some fun moments and personalities to cheer for.

In this nine-part series, we'll name our Bears All-Decade Team.

We've already covered linebackersdefensive linemenedge defenderscornerbackssafeties , wide receivers, quarterback and running backs. Next up: offensive line and tight ends.

Offensive Line

Kyle Long (guard), Roberto Garza (center), Charles Leno (tackle), Cody Whitehair (center/guard), Josh Sitton (guard)

The Bears haven't exactly been blessed with elite offensive line play in the 2010s, but they've managed to field five players over the last 10 years who each warrant recognition on this all-decade squad.

The first and most obvious is Long, who's been Chicago's vocal leader on and off the field since he arrived as a first-round pick out of Oregon back in 2013. He took the NFL by storm and was considered one of the best young linemen in the league after his rookie season; he was named to the All-Rookie team that year and was selected to the Pro Bowl for three consecutive seasons from 2013-15. 

Injuries have gotten the best of Long since his last Pro-Bowl year and he hasn't managed more than nine starts in any season since 2015. Regardless, he's been the Bears' best offensive lineman of the decade.

Garza isn't far behind Long when it comes to the most memorable linemen of the 2010s. After beginning his career with the Atlanta Falcons in 2001, Garza joined the Bears in 2005 and became a fixture in the starting lineup until 2014. He started 78 games in Chicago from 2010-14 and finished his career as a Bear with 145 total starts. He never received any all-star accolades or awards, but Garza was a huge part of the Bears' foundation for 10 years.

Leno, Jr., one of two players on this list who will likely enter the new decade as a starter, ended the 2010s as one of the Bears' most pleasant surprises. Leno was selected by the Bears with the 246th pick of the 2014 NFL draft, a draft slot that usually results in a player being a career backup, at best. Instead, Leno has developed into one of the most important players on the roster and one of the more competent starting left tackles in the NFL. He's started 78 games for the Bears and was selected to the 2018 Pro Bowl.

The other new-decade starter is Whitehair, who's been arguably the Bears' most valuable lineman when it comes to positional versatility and quality of play. Whitehair has started at both center and guard and has played both positions at a high level. The former second-round pick of the 2016 NFL draft has started all 64 games of his career and was selected to the 2016 All-Rookie Team and 2018 Pro Bowl. It's hard to imagine what the Bears' offensive line would be like if Whitehair wasn't in town. One thing's for sure: the offense would be in a lot of trouble.

Last but not least is Sitton, one of GM Ryan Pace's better free-agent decisions during his tenure with the Bears. Sitton signed with the Bears in 2016 after an eight-year career with the Green Bay Packers and immediately elevated the offensive line's toughness and effectiveness. His presence was short-lived (he started only 25 games in Chicago), but his impact was long-lasting. He made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Bears and was a key part in running back Jordan Howard finishing second in the NFL in rushing that year.

Tight End: Martellus Bennett
2013-15

Bennett played three seasons for the Bears, started 41 games and put up remarkable numbers at a position that's plagued Chicago since the days of Mike Ditka.

In 2014, Bennett caught 90 passes for 916 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that coach Matt Nagy could only dream of from a tight end in his offense. By the time Bennett's run in Chicago was over, he caught 211 passes for 2,114 yards and 14 scores.