Cody Whitehair

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

2018 depth chart

Tackles

1. Charles Leno
Usage: 16 games, 99.3 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.9 million cap hit

Leno’s steady improvement since being picked in the seventh round of Phil Emery’s final draft continued in 2018, with the 27-year-old allowing 32 pressures on 634 pass blocking snaps — roughly in line with pressure rates of veterans like the Rams’ Andrew Whitworth and the Giants’ Nate Solder. Leno was solid as a run blocker, though as is the case with the rest of the line (and the coaching staff, and the running back unit) there’s room for improvement. 

His durability is important, too: The only snaps he missed in 2018 were in that season-ending win over the Minnesota Vikings, when Matt Nagy pulled a number of starters in the fourth quarter. The last time Leno didn’t play 100 percent of his team’s offense snaps in a game previous was Week 3 of the 2015 season. 

Meanwhile, Leno’s 2019 cap hit ranks 20th among left tackles, per Spotrac. The contract extension he signed prior to the 2017 season looked even better in 2018, as Leno continued to build on the upside he showed early in his career. 

2. Bobby Massie 
Usage: 16 games, 99.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $3.8 million cap hit

Only three tackles with over 1,000 snaps allowed fewer pressures than Massie — those being the Chiefs’ Mitchell Schwartz, the Seahawks’ Duane Brown and the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley. That’s good company in which to be. 

Additionally, only four tackles with over 1,000 snaps committed fewer penalties than Massie’s four, and he allowed just one sack, two hits and 23 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. With that backdrop, Ryan Pace’s move to sign Massie to a contract extension looks smart — especially given how his contract is structured, keeping his cap hit low in 2019. With Leno and Massie together again, the Bears can move forward with confidence their tackles will keep Mitch Trubisky upright again this season. 

3. Bradley Sowell
Usage: 16 games, 4.7 percent of offensive snaps, 17.7 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1.8 million cap hit

Sowell fits well as a swing tackle who was used in a few different ways last year: As a sixth offensive lineman (30 snaps, one of which was on “Santa’s Sleigh”), as a fullback (eight snaps, all in Week 17 against the Vikings) and in the slot (one snap). The question for Pace, though: Do all those traits make him worth keeping in the face of a potential $1.5 million in cap savings by cutting him?

The answer is, probably, yes. Sowell played well in 2017 as both a guard and a tackle, and his athleticism does allow Nagy to do some outside-the-box things with him. But without much cap space available, perhaps Pace will roll the dice with an unproven backup for cheap. 

4. Rashaad Coward
Usage: 0 games
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Coward had a trial by fire in 2018, when he had to learn how to play right tackle while largely lining up against Khalil Mack during mid-week practices at Halas Hall. He’s an intriguing prospect, one the Bears weren’t willing to risk losing by trying to sneak him onto the practice squad last year. Depending on the kind of growth he showed under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, he could be back in a reserve role in 2019. 

5. Cornelius Lucas
Usage (with New Orleans Saints): 1 game, 5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Lucas is a five-year veteran who’s appeared in 37 games in his career, but only played in once in each of the last two seasons (lone starts with the Rams in 2017 and Saints in 2018). If the Bears were to part with Sowell, he’d have an opportunity to compete to be the team’s swing tackle this year. 

6. Dejon Allen
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Allen spent 2018 on the Bears’ practice squad, and the 6-foot-3, 290 pound Hawaii alum will have a shot at sticking around as a practice squad player again in 2019. 

Guards

1. James Daniels
Usage: 16 games, 70.9 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,579,581 cap hit

Daniels steadily improved throughout his rookie season, and acquitted himself well as the Bears muted the impact Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald had on their 15-6 win over the Rams in December. His future looks bright as the Bears seem to move forward with Cody Whitehair as their center and Daniels locked in at left guard. 

“We like where he's headed,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said last month. “He's a guy that again is kind of a quietly confident, he's naturally a quiet guy and the more you're around him, I think he just has that calmness. … We believe in him. It's not a situation where we are going 'Hey we have to turn this way or that way or the other.’ He's going to have some tough matchups and we expect him to win them."

2. Kyle Long
Usage: 8 games, 47.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.5 million cap hit

Long seems like a candidate to have his contract re-structured, as the Bears value his presence but also may not be keen on committing $8.5 million to a guard — and a guard who hasn’t played a full season since 2015. The Bears declined to pick up Josh Sitton's $8 million option a year ago, opting to replace him with a combination of Eric Kush and James Daniels. 

When healthy, Long is critical to the Bears’ success running the ball. The good news is he said on locker cleanout day he feels confident in his health — “no knives this offseason,” he quipped. “It’s gonna be pretty awesome. Jettisoning Long, too, would leave a significant hole in the right side of an offensive line that otherwise is returning all of its starters from 2018. How the Bears approach Long in the coming weeks and months will be an important storyline to follow. 

3. Bryan Witzmann
Usage: 10 games, 49.6 percent of offensive snaps, 10.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Witzmann lent a steady hand in place of Long from Weeks 8-16, allowing only 16 pressures in 306 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He didn’t allow a pressure against the Rams in Week 14, and the Bears’ offensive line didn’t fall apart after he swapped in for the injured Long. He played in all five of the Bears’ games in December, which represented Jordan Howard’s best stretch of the season, too. The Bears could do worse with a backup guard. 

4. Eric Kush 
Usage: 15 games, 32 percent of offensive snaps, 14.9 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Kush began the season as the team’s starting left guard and struggled to run block consistently. He began rotating with Daniels in Week 4, then rotated with Witzmann in Week 9 and didn’t play an offensive snap after that. Based on that lack of usage, the Bears will likely move on from him this offseason. 

5. Willie Beavers
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Beavers, a former fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, has bounced around practice squads over the last three years, including the Bears’ in 2018. 

Centers

1. Cody Whitehair
Usage: 16 games, 100 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,344,180 cap hit

The Bears will need to work out an extension for Whitehair, who played every single one of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018 and earned a trip to Orlando as a Pro Bowl alternate. His steady presence, ability to read opposing defenses and good relationship with Trubisky is important for the Bears’ offense. 

What Whitehair’s extension could look like will be interesting to see, presuming he indeed signs one sometime between the start of training camp and the beginning of the season. Perhaps something similar (and a little richer) than the three-year, $27 million extension signed by Seahawks center Justin Britt (a 2014 second-round pick) will be the starting point. 

2. James Daniels
Usage: 0 snaps at center

Daniels played 122 snaps at center during the preseason but didn’t play at all there during the regular season. He’ll likely remain the team’s backup center going forward, though. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5. Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018). 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5

Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018).  

Previous needs & grades: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs 

What should be on Ryan Pace's offseason to-do list?

What should be on Ryan Pace's offseason to-do list?

For the first time as Bears general manager, Ryan Pace will enter an offseason with his team coming off a winning record. The Bears don’t have the kind of massive, glaring needs they did in years past. These next few months will be about improving an NFC North-winning roster, either shrewdly or boldly. 

But from this week, when preparations for the NFL Draft begin in earnest at the Senior Bowl, to a day before the regular season starts in September, Pace will still have an important to-do list to accomplish. The Bears’ resources will be limited — about $25 million in cap space after Dion Sims is released, and no first- or second-round picks.

Today, we’ll look at the biggest items on a list aimed at making sure the Bears not only retain their division title, but get over the hump and become a legitimate Super Bowl contender a year from now: 

1. Find a new kicker.

Cody Parkey missed 10 kicks in the regular season before his infamous double-doink put an end to the Bears’ first playoff appearance in eight years. His appearance on “TODAY” just five days after the Bears’ season ended made his release a matter of “when” and not “if.” 

Robbie Gould, whose critical missed field goals in 2015 sparked three years of sub-optimal placekicking in Chicago, will be a free agent. He and his family still live in the area, and he’s only missed three of his 85 field goal attempts since the Bears released him prior to the 2016 season. 

A reunion seems like a natural fit for both sides, even if the cost of signing Gould may not be ideal given Cody Parkey’s 2019 cap hit of a little over $4 million. But there would be no criticizing or second-guessing Pace if he brought back the 36-year-old Gould to replace Parkey. 

The San Francisco 49ers, though, could opt to place the franchise tag on Gould and keep him around for somewhere between $4 million to $5 million. If that happens, or Pace isn’t interested in spending that much on a kicker, or Gould doesn’t want to come back to Chicago, then the Bears’ best option would be to sign a free agent and bring in competition via a draft pick or undrafted free agent. 

The Jets’ Jason Myers (91.7 percent field goal success rate) and the Jaguars’ Josh Lambo (90.5 percent) may be the two best unrestricted free agent options, while the Buccaneers’ Cairo Santos (77.8 percent) and the Vikings’ Dan Bailey (75 percent) will also be available. We’ll say the Bears won’t be in the market for the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri or the Seahawks’ Sebastian Janikowski — if they’re going to spend, most likely it would be for Gould. 

WalterFootball.com ranks this year’s two best draft-eligible kickers as LSU’s Cole Tracy (87.9 percent in 2018) and Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert (89.5 percent in 2018), both of whom could require a mid-round pick to acquire, though (the Bears met with Tracy at the Senior Bowl, per Pro Football Weekly's Eric Edholm). Someone like Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (80.8 percent in four years) could be an option as an undrafted free agent. 

2. Improve the personnel at running back. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported over the weekend that former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who was filmed shoving and kicking a woman and also is under investigation by the NFL for two other separate alleged violent incidents, could sign with a team sooner rather than later, with multiple teams interested in him. Neither Pace nor Matt Nagy, who was Hunt’s offensive coordinator in 2017, were willing to close the door on signing Hunt earlier this month. 

Hunt is on the commissioner’s exempt list and is expected to be suspended for six games or more when the NFL’s investigation concludes. If the NFL does not count Hunt’s missed time in 2018 — he didn’t play in the final five games of the season after the Chiefs cut him for not being truthful about the violent incident with a woman outside his Cleveland apartment captured on video and published by TMZ — he wouldn’t be eligible for the majority, perhaps all, of the first half of the 2019 season. 

So even if Pace were to sign Hunt — and the McCaskey family were to okay the move — he wouldn’t be guaranteed to be an immediate solution to the Bears’ problem. 

We know Tarik Cohen will be back as one of Nagy’s favorite, versatile, explosive weapons (Nagy bristled, twice, at the notion he didn’t try to get Cohen the ball enough in the Bears’ wild card loss to the Philadelphia Eagles). Jordan Howard’s future is less clear — he averaged about 16 carries and 58 yards per game (3.7 yards/carry) in 2018 while catching 20 passes for 145 yards. Credit Howard with greatly improving his hands in an attempt to better fit Nagy’s offense, but the Bears need a more dynamic pass-catching running back who can also be more consistently effective on the ground. 

That doesn’t mean the Bears will necessarily cut ties with Howard, who still has one year left on his cheap rookie contract. The Bears could try to trade him, but otherwise he’ll still be around for training camp, when he could be competing against a draft pick. 

It’s too simple to say it’s “easy” to find a running back in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft, though. Three of the top five rushing rookie running backs in 2018 were drafted in the first or second round (Saquon Barkley, Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson) while the seven running backs taken in rounds 3-5 averaged 52 carries, 274 yards, 22 receptions and 129 yards in their respective rookie seasons. 

If the Bears are able to find the next Hunt or Alvin Kamara in the third round, they’ll take him. But the Bears aren’t going to be the only team looking for a versatile, explosive running back in the middle rounds of the draft. As Pace, Nagy and Bears scouts dive into potential targets at the Senior Bowl this week and then into the NFL Combine next month, they’ll certainly be looking to find that ideal scheme fit. And identifying, and then drafting, that player could be critical in helping unlock Mitch Trubisky’s complete potential in Nagy’s offense. 

But again, it’s not a given that player exists, and that the Bears will be able to draft him. 

3. See if a big-ticket player is available, and would be a fit. 

With a limited amount of cap space and no first-round picks to offer, the Bears’ options will be limited in looking to add impact players the way the Los Angeles Rams did a year ago — when they signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (on a one-year, $14 million deal) and traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks (for a first-round pick), cornerback Aqib Talib (for a fifth-round pick) and cornerback Marcus Peters (for second, fourth- and sixth-round picks). 

Granted, the Rams had plenty of roster turnover after surprisingly winning the NFC West in 2017, losing wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson to free agency. The Bears made their big splash move when they traded two first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for Khalil Mack, then signed him to the largest contract ever given to a defensive player. It’s, obviously, more than okay that the Bears cashed in their chips for Mack. 

It’s unlikely the Bears have the ability to make the best offer to the Pittsburgh Steelers for wide receiver Antonio Brown, who could be headed for a trade. Brown’s $22.165 million cap hit would be difficult to fit into a team that already has over $23 million tied up in wide receivers in 2019. Plus, Brown wouldn’t seem to fit a culture in which the head coach values “we” over “me.”

But different players become available for different reasons, and Pace has consistently shown to be aggressive when he identifies a player in whom he has conviction. As we learned with Mack, never discount Pace’s willingness and ability to strike when an opportunity presents itself. 

4. Figure out what to do with four key free agents (Bryce Callahan, Bobby Massie, Adrian Amos, Pat O’Donnell).

“You're either getting better or you're getting worse,” Pace said earlier this month. “We need to make sure we're getting better.”

Still, there’s something to be said for continuity if the situation calls for it. 

Callahan would seem the most likely top target to be retained. As a slot corner, Callahan played 64 percent of the Bears’ snaps in 2018 — and that was with missing the final three and a half games of the season. With most teams’ “base” defense becoming a nickel package, having a player of Callahan’s caliber is critical. The 27-year-old had two interceptions, five pass break-ups, two sacks and 13 total pressures, showing the kind of playmaking knack that fits in any coordinator’s scheme. 

But Callahan has been banged up in the four years since he broke through as an undrafted free agent with the Bears, missing those three games in 2018 and another four in 2017. The Bears will have a keen understanding of where he is in his recovery from his season-ending foot injury, and those health issues could drive his price down and allow Pace to confidently bring him back for a reasonable deal. 

Massie and Amos are trickier propositions. Massie played every non-garbage-time snap for the Bears in 2018 and was a critical part of a unit that ranked second by Pro Football Focus in pass blocking. No offensive line allowed fewer pressures than the Bears’ 117, and only the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line was credited with fewer sacks than the Bears’ 11. Massie, though, was also part of an offensive line that wasn’t consistent enough in blocking for a lagging run game. 

But the Bears know what they have in Rashaad Coward, the converted defensive linemen who stuck on the active roster last season while learning how to play right tackle under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand. If the Bears feel like Coward is ready to compete for a starting job (after a year of going against Mack in practice), they could move on from Massie and draft a tackle, opening up a competition to see if they can get similar or better production while saving, perhaps, around $5 million in the process. 

We covered the Bears’ decision on Amos last week, but a loaded safety free agent market could knock his price tag down and allow the Bears to keep him on a deal that fits with their limited cap space budget. Alternatively, this year’s deep safety class could allow the Bears to target a veteran on a short-term deal while drafting someone to compete for playing time, and perhaps eventually take over that safety spot long-term. 

As for O’Donnell, he had a decent year punting — one with which special teams coordinator Chris Tabor seemed pleased — but his shanked punt that set up the Philadelphia Eagles’ go-ahead scoring drive may leave a bad taste in the Bears’ mouth. One bad punt won’t lose O’Donnell his job, but the Bears didn’t commit to him a year ago beyond a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Pace may look to go the undrafted free agent route to save cap space for more pressing needs. 

5. Improve depth across the board. 

Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch will become a free agent, and provided solid, important depth when he was healthy. But he was a Vic Fangio guy dating back to their days in San Francisco, and coupled with Sam Acho’s early season-ending pectoral injury the Bears were left to rely on Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts behind Mack and Leonard Floyd at times (including the Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles). There’s no such thing as too much edge rushing depth, and while the Bears could bring Acho back (perhaps on a restructured deal), they’ll need to address the depth chart behind Mack and Floyd via free agency and the draft. 

The same goes for cornerback. Undrafted free agent Kevin Toliver II has projectable length and athleticism, while Sherrick McManis played well while filling in for Callahan late in the season. Perhaps this depth can be addressed through Toliver, McManis and someone who was on the practice squad in 2018 (like local product Michael Joseph). But the Bears haven’t drafted a cornerback since taking Deiondre’ Hall in 2016, and even then, he was moved to safety. Bringing in some competition for Toliver via the draft would be a good play by Pace, as would adding a free agent or two to this group to add a veteran presence to what’ll shape up to be a training camp competition. 

The Bears look to have good depth at wide receiver, defensive line and inside linebacker, but Pace has shown a willingness to draft players based on conviction more than need. 

6. Hammer out an extension for Cody Whitehair. 

Whitehair was a late addition to the NFC Pro Bowl roster this week, and his durability, solid play and close relationship with Trubisky make him worthy of a contract extension. Whitehair was the only Bears player to play all 1,075 offensive snaps in 2018, and previously he played 99.8 and 97.6 percent of the Bears’ snaps in 2016 and 2017. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Whitehair was not responsible for allowing a sack or a quarterback hit in 2018, though his grade of 70.4 ranked 10th among centers, for what it’s worth. Perhaps a three or four-year deal with an average annual value of around $10 million would be fair for Whitehair, which would be a little more than what Justin Britt received from the Seattle Seahawks as his rookie contract was coming up two years ago. 

Whatever the Bears do with Whitehair will likely be the last thing Pace does before the season starts. The Bears announced Eddie Goldman’s contract extension two days before the 2018 season began, and signed Akiem Hicks and Charles Leno to extensions in the weeks leading up to the 2017 season. 

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Bears add another pair of players following Mitch Trubisky to the Pro Bowl

Bears add another pair of players following Mitch Trubisky to the Pro Bowl

Add two more names to the list of Bears Pro Bowlers this season.

Offensive linemen Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno Jr. are also heading to Orlando to help lend some protection to Mitch Trubisky, who was named as a replacement to Rams QB Jared Goff Monday.

Leno takes the place of Saints tackle Terron Armstead and Whitehair is replacing New Orleans center Max Unger for this weekend's exhibition game.

Whitehair and Leno have been staples on the Bears offensive line, starting every game the last three seasons (Whitehair at center or guard, Leno at left tackle). 

Whitehair, 26, was a 2nd round selection in 2016 while Leno, 27, was a 7th round draft pick in 2014 in Phil Emery's last draft as Bears GM.

Both players were a huge part of a line that paved the way for Trubisky and Co. to pass for 3,747 yads and rush for 1,938 yards with 44 total offensive TDs.

The complete list of Bears players going to the Pro Bowl after a 12-4 season now sits at: Trubisky, Whitehair, Leno, Tarik Cohen, Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. 

This is the first time the Bears have had 8 Pro Bowlers since 2007 (following the 2006 season). They previously had 9 selections in the Super Bowl championship season of 1985 and 11 Pro Bowlers in 1942.

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