Josh Sitton

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for Bears to fill hole on offensive line

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for Bears to fill hole on offensive line

One of Ryan Pace’s first moves with an eye on the Bears’ 2018 roster was releasing guard Josh Sitton back in February, which generated $8 million in cap savings but created a hole in team’s offensive line. The Bears can pencil in four starters for September: Left tackle Charles Leno, guard Kyle Long, guard/center Cody Whitehair and right tackle Bobby Massie. None of those guys appear to be going anywhere as free agency nears. 

Part of the reason the Bears released Sitton was the team’s confidence in the health of Long, who underwent neck surgery in December, had his shoulder operated on in January and missed time due to an ankle injury last season. 

“Kyle is working hard,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “We feel good about his progress. So yeah, that's part of the equation.”

As the Bears look for Sitton’s replacement, the ability of Whitehair to play guard (the position at which he was drafted) or center (where he’s largely played the last two years) offers some flexibility. Bringing in Harry Hiestand — Notre Dame’s offensive line coach from 2012 to 2017 — makes Quenton Nelson a natural fit with the No. 8 pick in April, presuming A) Nelson is still on the board and B) the Bears are OK “reaching” for a less-valued position with a top-10 pick. 

But if the Bears do look to fill Sitton’s spot through free agency, they’ll have some interesting options, too. 

Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers

Norwell is the best offensive lineman available this month. The 6-foot-6, 313-pound 26-year-old is coming off an All-Pro 2017 season and hasn’t missed a game in the last two years. He has a similar “nasty” streak to Nelson, and signing him would allow Long to stay on the right side of the line, where he’s been a three-time Pro Bowler. 

“Andrew had a terrific year, and he's been nothing but a solid player for us every season,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last week. 

The issue with Norwell, though, is pretty clear: He’s going to cost quite a bit, maybe upwards of $30 million in guaranteed money. If the Bears wanted to get younger and cheaper in releasing Sitton, they’ll get younger with Norwell, but not cheaper. Even with a healthy cap situation, signing Norwell could mean the Bears have about $20 million tied up at guard in 2020 — and that’s not to mention the likely need for Whitehair to receive a second contract in a year. 

Don’t put it past Pace to commit resources to building Mitch Trubisky’s offensive line, but given the current composition of that group, it seems a little far-fetched to imagine Norwell as part of it. 

Zach Fulton, Kansas City Chiefs

Fulton looks like a good fit for the Bears for a few reasons:

— He played in 63 of 64 games from 2014 to 2017 with the Chiefs, so Matt Nagy can vouch for the 26-year-old’s toughness and consistency. 

— Like Whitehair, he’s flexible enough to play guard or center, so getting him in the building would allow Hiestand to figure out the best interior combination during OTAs, minicamps and training camp. 

— He’d accomplish both getting younger and cheaper than Sitton. 

— He’s a Homewood-Flossmoor alum, and being a local product couldn’t hurt the Bears’ pitch to him. 

Josh Kline, Tennessee Titans

If the Bears can’t land/pass on Norwell, the 28-year-old Kline would make sense as a target along with Fulton. He played in all 16 games for the Titans last year, though that was the first time in his five-year career that he didn’t miss a game. The Hoffman Estates native (he went to high school in Ohio) would provide some less-expensive stability, though Fulton might be the better option if the Bears have a choice. 

Justin Pugh, New York Giants

The Giants want to keep Pugh, who’s played both guard and tackle since New York used a first-round pick on him in 2013. If the Giants are willing to pay him like a tackle, that probably prices him out of the Bears’ range if they want him as a guard — if he even wants to leave New York in the first place. 

Senio Kelemete, New Orleans Saints

Kelemete and Pace overlapped for a year in New Orleans, and he’d be a solid fit as a reserve with the ability to play all five positions on the offensive line. He’s never been a full-time starter (58 games played, 22 starts), but he’s only missed one game in the last three years, potentially making him a more reliable backup than Tom Compton going forward. 

Chris Hubbard, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Bears don’t appear to be moving on from Massie at right tackle in part because A) he’s coming off a solid season and 2) there’s not a clear upgrade available in free agency. If the Bears sign a tackle, it’ll most likely be a backup along the lines of Hubbard, who’s played in 40 games but only started 14 times in his four-year NFL career.

Bears get younger, net more cap savings in releasing Pernell McPhee and Quintin Demps

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USA Today

Bears get younger, net more cap savings in releasing Pernell McPhee and Quintin Demps

The Bears continued shedding veterans and netting cap savings on Monday, with the team announcing the releases of linebacker Pernell McPhee and safety Quintin Demps.

Those two cuts come on the heels of the Bears last week releasing guard Josh Sitton and linebacker Jerrell Freeman. All told, those four moves garner the Bears about $21 million in cap savings; the expected release of quarterback Mike Glennon will produce $11.5 million more in cap savings, per Spotrac, and if the Bears release Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper, that’d save another $9.5 million. 

But in releasing two more veterans — Demps, like Sitton and Freeman, was a captain; McPhee was regarded as a good locker room guy, too — the Bears are continuing to get younger, too. 

Adrian Amos’ emergence as a solid player (maybe not an elite one, as some outside evaluations have pegged him as) made Demps an unlikely candidate to return as an expensive backup. Demps missed all but three games in 2017 due to a fractured forearm, and regrettably for him, his most notable moment was getting stiff-armed by Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper on an 88-yard touchdown in Week 1. 

McPhee’s production never matched the five-year, $38.75 million contract he signed in 2015, which was Ryan Pace’s first big splash as general manager. McPhee played in 36 of the Bears’ 48 games his three years in Chicago, only starting 17 of those and recording 14 sacks. He’ll be 30 in December, and despite being a positive presence at Halas Hall, his play didn’t match the near-$8 million cap number attached to him for 2018. The Bears could certainly look to draft an edge rusher with the No. 8 pick in April's NFL Draft. 

While Sitton wasn’t one of Pace’s free agent misses, McPhee, Freeman and Demps fall into that category (as do Glennon, Wheaton and Cooper). The Bears could wind up cutting ties with all of those busts, giving Pace plenty of money to spend on second contracts for Eddie Goldman and, possibly, Amos, as well as in this year’s free agent market. It’s now on Pace to make sure he hits on more of his free agent targets than he has in the past while nailing an important draft to build out the roster around a franchise quarterback and a first-year coach. 

“Free agency is high risk, and we understand that,” Pace said on New Year’s Day. “I think with free agency you have to be very disciplined during that time period, and I think we have been in regards to how we’ve structured a lot of these contracts. I think that’s helped. But I think as we continue to build more through the draft, we can continue to be a little more selective in free agency. There have been some hits. We talk about (Danny) Trevathan and (Akiem) Hicks. And there have been some misses too. That’s on me. We need to get better in that area, and we will get better in that area. But primarily our goal, as you know, is build through the draft and develop those players.”

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.