Ted Larsen

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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Takeaways from early ’19 free agency: Bears not flashy, just better

Takeaways from early ’19 free agency: Bears not flashy, just better

Most of the mystery money in the shape of cap space from contract restructures for Eddie Goldman and Khalil Mack is still lying somewhere in a Halas Hall corner, waiting…just…waiting, waiting presumably for some roster purpose yet unseen.

An offhand guess is that general manager Ryan Pace has marshalled funds, borrowed from the future, anticipating a cut or player coming free elsewhere in the NFL sometime before Opening Day, and Pace will have the Bears positioned to strike. In 2016, that cut (in September, by Green Bay) was guard Josh Sitton.

In 2017 it was an August contract extension for left tackle Charles Leno. Last year it was the September trade for Khalil Mack, accompanied by the then-largest contract ever given to a defensive player.

In the meantime, though, the Bears went about their business well below the level of roster pyrotechnics in places like Baltimore (RB Mark Ingram, S Earl Thomas), Cleveland (WR Odell Beckham Jr., DT Sheldon Richardson, DE Olivier Vernon), Oakland (WR Antonio Brown, OT Trent Brown, S Lamarcus Joyner), WR Tyrell Williams), San Francisco (LB Kwon Alexander, DE Dee Ford, Tevin Coleman) and the Jets (RB Le’Veon Bell, LB C.J. Mosley).

A qualifier here is that of all those big-ticket teams, only the Ravens were in the 2018 postseason, and a one-and-done like the Bears at that.

But the question isn’t necessarily how much or on whom, but whether or not the Bears improved, because “you’re either getting worse and you’re getting better,” as Matt Nagy said in the postseason wrapup. They already have a young roster with an assemblage of rising players from whom performance jumps are expected, either from straight development or from second years in an offensive system.

And the conclusion from the signings of the week – S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, RB Mike Davis, C/G Ted Larsen, WR/RB/KR Cordarrelle Patterson, CB Buster Skrine – is that the Bears have in fact gotten better.

Were bigger options available? Of course. Landon Collins instead of Clinton-Dix? Davis or Bell? Larsen or Mike Iupati? Patterson or AB?

But consider:

Clinton-Dix - The Bears had a not insignificant offer of an extension on the table for Adrian Amos last offseason and looked to have it done. Amos ultimately decided against signing and now he’s in Green Bay.  But while Amos carries the better rep and perception, Clinton-Dix rates an edge in coverage, and Bears opponents threw on 61 percent of their snaps in 2018. Clinton-Dix has not missed a game in five seasons and had as many interceptions (three) in 2018 as Amos has had in four full NFL seasons.

Chuck Pagano is mildly unique in that he occasionally employs rotations in his secondaries. The Bears may not be done shopping for defensive backs, and Bryce Callahan has not gotten the play that was widely expected.

Davis - The career backup is not an upgrade from Jordan Howard. But he is from Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell, and that’s the apples-to-apples comparison.

Larsen - Eric Kush served as fill for a couple seasons but Larsen has been a starting center and guard, and is a size and performance upgrade over Kush or Bryan Witzmann behind James Daniels and Kyle Long.

Patterson - The NFL’s worst kickoff return team just got exponentially better, and neither Tarik Cohen nor Anthony Miller need be exposed back there anymore. With his 7.9 yards per carry and average of 31 catches per season, he should fit in just fine with an offense that throws touchdown passes to offensive tackles, hands off to defensive tackles for scores and fields a cluster of five defensive linemen in goal-line skill positions.

Skrine - A Callahan return shouldn’t be ruled out until he signs elsewhere, but in the meantime, Skrine does not represent a precipitous falloff in sub packages. Skrine has interceptions in five of the past six seasons and at least a partial sack in the last three.

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Bears free-agency analysis: Offseason OL pattern holds with Tom Compton

Bears free-agency analysis: Offseason OL pattern holds with Tom Compton

This is the second in a series analyzing the Bears' decision-making during the 2017 free-agency period.

From 3/13: Bears free agency analysis: Alshon Jeffery non-deal left an understandable void

In what now looks to be a pattern under GM Ryan Pace, the Bears for the third straight offseason have gone after upgrades on their offensive line. Not always first-tier additions, but always a search for an improvement and more competition, and if something doesn't work, Pace does not stay wedded to a decision that hasn't worked.
 
The 2015 offseason started with signing guard Vladimir Ducasse and then center Will Montgomery. Ducasse started a handful of games, didn't pan out and wasn't brought back. Montgomery suffered a broken leg, went on IR and was done, with the Bears turning to Hroniss Grasu.
 
Last offseason saw Bobbie Massie signed for right tackle, Ted Larsen for a guard spot and Manny Ramirez for center. Ramirez retired before the season. Larsen, who played only because of injuries to Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, wasn't coming back and signed a three-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. Massie's situation is to be determined, with rumors last week that he would be cut.
 
That didn't happen, all part of what effectively became a domino strategy on an offensive line the Bears view as a roster strength.

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Among Pace's first probes into the market this year was after tackle Rick Wagner, who opted instead for the Detroit Lions and their surprising offer of $14.5 million guaranteed on a total package of $47.5 million over five years. Wagner's price made him the highest-paid pure right tackle in the NFL and was not within the parameters the Bears had established for the former Baltimore Raven.
 
When the money for tackles spiked explosively — Wagner, Riley Reiff ($58.8 million, Minnesota Vikings), Matt Kalil ($55 million, Carolina Panthers), Russell Okung ($53 million, Los Angeles Chargers) — Pace and the Bears instead kept Massie in place. Massie's $4.2 million base for 2017 is not guaranteed and contingent on his making the Week 1 roster.
 
At the same time, Pace moved on Tom Compton, a backup with Washington and the Atlanta Falcons, with 10 career starts and who'd also attracted interest from the Falcons, Lions and San Francisco 49ers.
 
"I don't know any specifics," Compton said of the Bears' plans for him. "I know they'll plug me in to see where I fit in but I'm not too sure what their plan is yet."

Compton has worked as a swing tackle with Atlanta, which runs a zone-blocking scheme similar to what the Bears have operated the past several years.

"I'm not too familiar with what's going on here," Compton said, "but it's pretty similar to what I'm used to, a lot of zone and play action so it should be a pretty good fit."