Rashaad Coward

Recently released guards could be good fits for the Bears

Recently released guards could be good fits for the Bears

A couple of guards recently hit the free agent market after being released, and could be nice fits for the Bears.

As things stand, right guard is a thin position for the team. Kyle Long is retired. Rashaad Coward —who moved to right guard when Long was sidelined — was tendered a contract as a restricted free agent, so
he'll be back. But Coward was replaced by Ted Larsen late last season, and Larsen's a free agent so there's no guarantee he returns.

Could the Bears look to those newly released players to help refill the depth chart and compete with Coward at right guard?

Josh Kline, whom the Vikings released on Wednesday, could be one option. Over the past four seasons, Kline has started 59 out of 64
games for the Vikings and Titans.

Another option is Mike Person, who was released by the 49ers on Thursday. Person started 30 of 32 games over the past two seasons for San Francisco, contributing to one of the best run games in the NFL.

Whatever the Bears decide to do, they'll likely have to add at least one player.
 

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

The Bears identified David Montgomery as the centerpiece of their run game overhaul earlier this year, trading up in the third round to draft him with the 73rd overall pick. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, then, didn’t envision Montgomery averaging just 3.5 yards per carry a dozen games into his rookie year. 

But that’s where the Bears stand with Montgomery, who’s rushed 172 times for 594 yards as the Bears enter the final four games of 2019. It feels like Nagy trusts Montgomery, but not the Bears’ run game. 

“I’m very happy with where he’s at,” Nagy said last week. “Love the kid to death and I think he has a really bright future.”

But the Bears need to get more production out of Montgomery, whose three best games have come against bad and depleted defenses (Washington, the Chargers, the Lions). He’s averaged fewer than three yards per carry in five games this year, leading Nagy — who has a quick trigger finger with going away from the run anyway — to have games like Green Bay and New Orleans where he shows no trust in the run game at all. 

But the Bears’ positive assessment of Montgomery is grounded in reality. All the things he did at Iowa State have showed up in the NFL — the shiftiness, the toughness, the patience, the vision, etc. It’s how he was able to turn this...

And then this...

... Into a 10-yard gain and a first down on the Bears’ game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. The stop-start ability, patience and toughness to grind out five extra yards after contact are all reasons why the Bears wanted Montgomery, and felt comfortable trading Jordan Howard — who, based on his running style, would’ve been stopped at the line of scrimmage — to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Plays like that one are why Nagy, in the game, said he felt like the Bears were gaining five yards per carry (Montgomery averaged 4.7) — a feel which helped him open up his playbook and call more running plays. 

“It makes it a lot easier, because it’s open to what the next play call’s gonna be based off of second-and-3, second-and-4, second-and-5,” Nagy said. “It’s way easier. You felt that. Now, every week is different, because there’s some weeks where you play a defensive line or a defensive front that’s totally (different). 

“You can’t just put on Tecmo Bowl and all the sudden be playing this front on arcades. … It’s different every week, so we’ve gotta try to scheme things up as much as we can. But last week felt good.”

The question, then, becomes: How do the Bears get this out of Montgomery on a consistent basis, and not just against sub-optimal run defenses missing guys like Damon “Snacks” Harrison?

Part of it, certainly, is Nagy’s scheme and playcalling. Montgomery is the kind of back who can wear down a defense with his physicality, even if he’s only gaining three yards per carry over the first two or three quarters. There needs to be a greater long-term commitment to getting Montgomery touches. 

Of note: It does not necessarily mean running more under center. Montgomery is averaging three yards per carry when the Bears are under center (91 attempts) and four yards per carry from the shotgun (81 attempts), though that latter number is skewed thanks to a 55-yard run against the Chargers in Week 8. Even removing that run from Montgomery’s shotgun runs, he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry in those — still higher than his under center average. 

But there’s a larger issue in play here, and it’s the Bears’ offensive line. 

It’s a problem that pre-dates Montgomery and Nagy’s scheme and playcalling, too. Pulling from Football Outsiders’ offensive line database:

2017
3.65 adjusted line yards (28th)
58% power success (26th)
26% stuffed (28th)
1.2 second level yards (11th)

2018 
3.92 adjusted line yards (28th)
67% over success (18th)
20.5% stuffed (22nd)
0.96 second level yards (31st)

2019 (through Week 12) 
3.61 adjusted line yards (29th)
46% power success (30th)
21% stuffed (24th)
0.73 second level yards (32nd)

The pattern here: The Bears have not been efficient running the ball with different schemes and running back depth charts, though they've largely had the same personnel on their offensive line. Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long and Bobby Massie have accounted for 66.8 percent of the snaps played by Bears offensive linemen in the last three years, serving well as pass protectors but not as run blockers. 

The addition of James Daniels in 2018 did not help improve the Bears’ run game, nor has replacing Long with Rashaad Coward in 2019 under the watch of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. 

And the Bears have little wiggle room for changes to this unit in the offseason. Massie and Whitehair signed new contracts in 2019 and aren’t going anywhere. Leno carries a dead cap figure of over $7 million in 2020. Daniels’ cap hit is a shade over $1.5 million next year, too, making him a valuable asset for a team lacking gobs of cap space. 

Effectively, you can expect all four of those players to return in 2020, with the only question being where Daniels and Whitehair play on the interior. At this point in their careers, Leno, Whitehair and Massie are all who they are, for better or for worse (Whitehair, to be fair, is still one of the Bears’ best players). So expecting significant improvement from that group may not be fair, Daniels aside. 

That leaves right guard as the position up for grabs, with Long likely to be cut and Coward likely to slide into a reserve role in 2020. But how much improvement, realistically, can the Bears get out of one addition to their offensive line room?

Washington’s Brandon Scherff is the top guard free-agent-to-be, but the Bears would have to get creative — and not address other holes on the roster — to sign him to, say, a five-year, $65 million deal with $35 million or so guaranteed (he might even command more than that). Someone like New Orleans’ Andrus Peat, a former top-10 pick who’s currently out with an arm injury, could be a less-pricey — but still pricey — option, given he was a Pro Bowler in 2018. 

The Bears could also target a guard with one of their two second-round picks, seeing as they used one on Whitehair (2016) and Daniels (2018). 

It feels like the Bears need a physical brawler to play right guard, sort of along the lines of what Long was in his prime. But those guys are not necessarily easy to find, especially with limited resources. 

This is the root of the Bears’ run game problems. An offensive line consistently generating a run push would give Nagy the confidence to call more running plays, giving Montgomery more opportunities to carve out a consistent four or five yards per carry. 

But finding the solution to this problem does not appear easy. And that may mean the Bears go through 2020 without an effective run game, again. 

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Who's the Bears' best option to replace Kyle Long at right guard?

10-18rashaadcoward.jpg
USA Today

Who's the Bears' best option to replace Kyle Long at right guard?

The Bears have three options on their roster to start on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the first game of — in all likelihood — the post-Kyle Long era in Chicago. Is a guy who’s only played 30 snaps as a guard in his pro or college career really the right choice?

Rashaad Coward may be new to the position, but the Bears like his athleticism, physical edge and work ethic he brings to the offense. Also in the conversation: 10-year veteran Ted Larsen and undrafted rookie Alex Bars. 

Coward has more immediate upside, but Larsen (who's officially questionable with a knee injury, though he practiced in full Friday) is more a you-know-what-you're-getting guy. Coward's upside, though, lies in the athleticism and physicality he showed in limited time against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.

“He’s a tough guy, he plays very, very hard,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “It’s super important to him, he’s very prideful, he’s very determined to keep his guy from making a play and that’s a big part of this.”

That Hiestand has actual game film on which to evaluate and teach Coward is important. And the Bears saw him do some good things in letting his raw talent take over against the Vikings. 

“Going into the game, I was like F it,” Coward said. “It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t.”

Coward said on Monday he practiced with the No. 1 offense, and given Larsen was limited in Wednesday's and Thursday's practices, there's a decent chance Coward will start on Sunday. 

Larsen, though, is the kind of guy who could get the nod on Sunday without getting many reps during mid-week practices. 

Larsen suffered the injury in Week 4, which led to Coward entering the game, and he didn’t travel to London with the Bears in Week 5. But his veteran experience — he’s started 87 games in his career — and flexibility to play guard or center make him a trusted backup.

“I played a lot of football,” Larsen said. “I’m ready whenever they want to use me.”

There is a possibility the Bears rotate Larsen and Coward on a series-to-series basis, as the team did with a veteran (Eric Kush) and a greenhorn (James Daniels) at left guard last year. 

"It’s something that could definitely happen," Nagy said. "I’m not opposed to that. And then you can also balance and see, whether it’s Ted or Rashaad, how are they playing and we can get a feel for that during a game and we feel comfortable with both."

Bars is unlikely to factor this week but does have long-term upside. He turned down an opportunity to join the New England Patriots’ 53-man roster earlier this month because he saw a better opportunity in Chicago. That his college offensive line coach is now his pro offensive line coach certainly played into that decision, too.

Many thought Bars would be a mid-round draft pick prior to his final season at Notre Dame, but a torn ACL and MCL suffered last September knocked him down to being an undrafted free agent. The opportunity to link back up with Hiestand helped bring him to Chicago, where he played well during the preseason — but not well enough to make the Bears’ initial 53-man roster.

“The transition to this level coming off the injury was an adjustment I had to make, still making it every day,” Bars said. “I’m trying to improve and work against really, really good guys.” 

The Bears’ starting right guard for the rest of 2019 will hardly be settled by who starts against the Saints in Week 7. Coward may get the first crack, but if his inexperience overshadows his talent, the Bears may need to call on a safer option in Larsen. And that could open the door for Bars to start, too, if he proves to Hiestand behind the scenes he’s back on the track he was on prior to his collegiate injury.

Whoever plays, though, needs to be better than Long was over his four games prior to going on injured reserve. The Bears made that difficult decision in part to improve at right guard. It’s now on Coward — or Larsen, or Bars — to make good on that promise.

"Between the three of them I think it will be fun for us to kind of work through what decision, where we want to go with that," Nagy said. "And then whoever it is, let's go. There's no looking back."

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