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 ELLIS: JJ, 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. STANKEVITZ: I'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.
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.
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.