Rashaad Coward

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

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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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Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

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USA Today

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

For the fourth season in a row, Kyle Long’s season ends on injured reserve. 

Matt Nagy opened Monday's daily press conference –– his first since the morning after losing to Oakland –– officially announcing that the right guard’s season is over. 

“Obviously everyone has seen the news [about] Kyle, with putting him on the IR,” he said. “I think it's a tough situation just because of what he's been going through and where he's at … He's always been really good to us and what he's done. We just felt like that was where he's at right now and it's what we wanted to do.” 

Long’s nagging hip injury was clearly affecting his play, and the team felt – given all the run game struggles – that trying to fight through it on a week-by-week basis was no longer a realistic option. And while it’s true that Long came into 2019 camp as healthy as he’d been in years, the wear and tear of three injury-shortened seasons on the 30-year old guard were evident. 

The news was especially tough to swallow for those around Halas Hall given Long’s reputation among teammates and coaches. A first-round pick in 2013 with multiple Pro-Bowls, he was one of the team’s vocal leaders and well-liked throughout all corners of the locker room. 

“Kyle [is] a great dude,” Bilal Nichols said. “My whole rookie year, Kyle helped me out a lot because I lined up against him every day. Guys like him is why I had a pretty good season as a rookie last year.”

“You get a guy like Kyle, who’s poured his heart and soul into this organization and has worked really hard to be dominant in a lot of areas,” Nagy added. “We appreciate that. I’ve only been with him for a year and a half but I appreciate the way that he’s gone about things.”

Now the Bears turn to Rashaad Coward and Ted Larsen – the latter of which returned to practice after missing the Raiders game with a knee injury. Despite his relative inexperience playing on the interior (and frankly, on the offense in general), the team’s eager to see how Coward’s athleticism can help a running game that’s only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. 

He hasn’t been named the starter yet, but was taking first-team reps on Monday afternoon. 

“I just want to play with a dog mentality,” Coward said. “It’s the NFL. Guys come out here and try to kill you every week. So you can’t go out there playing soft. You’re going to get pushed around. And I don’t like that.” 

He also conceded that he was pleasantly surprised by how well he adjusted to having to be an emergency guard in the Bears’ win over Minnesota. Coward hadn’t gotten interior reps during that week of practice, and had to sub in when Larsen hurt his knee. 

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

“Coaches were like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re supposed to do.’ At the end of the day, just keep it going.” 

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Bears at the Bye: Kyle Long headlines a brutal start for Chicago's O-line

Bears at the Bye: Kyle Long headlines a brutal start for Chicago's O-line

It's easy to cast blame on the quarterback, running back, wide receivers and tight end when an offense is struggling, as is the case with the Chicago Bears in 2019. In an era dominated by fantasy football and box-score scouting, production (or lack of it) tends to sculpt team and player narratives.

There's no denying Mitch Trubisky and the rest of the Bears' skill players have to improve over the final 11 games of the regular season. They've certainly played their part in what's been one of the worst offenses in the NFL through five weeks (30th overall), but their struggles will continue if there isn't a marked turnaround by the offensive line. It's been, by far, the most frustrating collection of five players on the roster this year and is the one position group where a change in the starting lineup could be on its way.

Right guard Kyle Long is playing the worst football of his seven-year career. There's no way around it. He's Chicago's lowest-graded player on offense (37.5), and out of 200 offensive linemen evaluated by Pro Football Focus in 2019, Long ranks 192nd. 

Injuries have become commonplace for Long over the last several seasons. He hasn't started more than nine games in any season since 2016 and he's already missed one game this year (hip). His poor play has been attributed to his hip injury by some analysts, but it might be time to simply recognize that Long isn't the same player he was when he entered the NFL in 2013. He's a great leader and one of the most recognizable faces on this team, but his performance has regressed to a reserve's level.

Long isn't alone with his struggles along the offensive line. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. is off to a rough start in 2019; he leads the Bears with 15 pressures allowed, a total that's 19th-most among all offensive linemen this year. His 44.0 run-blocking grade from PFF is by far the lowest of his career and is contributing to Chicago's strains to establish a running game. Leno's made a living as an underrated left tackle who's outplayed his seventh-round draft status, but now that GM Ryan Pace has made a long-term commitment to him as the left tackle of this franchise — he signed a four-year, $37 million contract extension in 2017 — he's being held to a higher standard. 

Left guard Cody Whitehair and center James Daniels swapped positions this offseason with the hope that Daniels would emerge as a young building block in the middle of Chicago's offensive line. The 22-year-old hasn't been great, but he hasn't disappointed either. His 74.6 pass-blocking grade is the best among Bears starters this year and his 54.2 run-blocking score ranks second on the team, which is probably more of an indication of how poorly Chicago is doing in that department. Daniels isn't a finished product yet but he's off to a strong Year 1 as this team's pivot man.

Whitehair has been solid as well. He's been the only halfway competent run blocker through five games and at this point in his career has settled into his role as a reliable starting guard who Chicago can count on to play mistake-free football. He's been penalized only one time in 320 snaps this season, compared to Leno who's been flagged eight times.

Right tackle Bobby Massie, whose four-year, $30.8 million extension signed in the offseason is a bargain in today's market, is playing like a sound starter for the second year in a row. He's allowed just eight pressures in 2019, but (here we go again) needs to get better in in the run game. He missed one game because of vertigo.

So, where could that change in the offensive line come? Rashaad Coward, who's lodged 30 snaps this year and was the Bears' second-most effective lineman in the limited sample size, is a candidate to bump Long from the starting lineup. Maybe it won't happen in Week 7, but if Long's struggles continue after healing up during the bye, coach Matt Nagy will have little choice but to make the swap.

Coward, 24, fits the replacement mold. He's a young player with upside who's gotten better over time. Remember, he was a defensive lineman just two seasons ago.

The Bears will only go as far as their offensive line takes them in 2019. If this group fails, Trubisky and the rest of the offense will fail along with it. Hopefully, it will only get better from here.

Bears OL grade at the bye: F