For Matt Nagy’s offense to operate properly, improved offensive line play is going to be key. And while it’s always easier said than done, it’s certainly not impossible.
So follow along as we try to turn the Bears offensive line into a strength in 2020. While some of what you’ll read here is outside of the Bears control, this first option is not.
Whitehair, Daniels Stay at Current Positions
A common denominator in the Bears’ successful rushing attacks in recent years is strength in the middle of the line. The Bears appear to have that in Cody Whitehair and James Daniels, but only if the two remain at center and left guard, respectively.
PFF’s Ben Linsey notes that Daniels earned a 73.9 grade as a left guard in 2019, which is far better than his 63.2 grade as a center. Daniels’ grade as a guard would have ranked as the fifth best among qualifying players, while his grade as a guard ranked 22nd. In 2018, Daniels was one of the NFL’s most accomplished rookie offensive linemen (so many accolades!). Now that we have two years worth of data and film of him as a left guard, he should stick there until further notice.
As for Whitehair, his best overall grades from PFF were the years he was primarily a center. He earned a 73.1 overall grade in 2018 en route to a Pro Bowl trip, while his 87.5 grade as a rookie was borderline elite. But in 2017, Whitehair’s grade dropped to 70.9 as he split time between center and both guard spots. Then in 2019, his 64.9 overall grade was the lowest of his career.
I understand why the Bears insisted on putting Daniels and Whitehair back at their original positions, but it seems to have done more harm than good.
Charles Leno Jr. Returns to 2015-18 Form
Leno’s play in 2019 was undeniably bad. He was penalized a ton, allowed pressure to Mitch Trubisky’s blindside far too often, and his overall production was a major letdown (his 58.6 PFF grade ranked 65th among qualifying offensive tackles). Yuck.
But Leno isn’t too far removed from a breakthrough 2018 season during which he earned a 75.7 grade and one trip to the Pro Bowl. And it’s not like he was a one-year wonder. From 2015-17, Leno earned grades of 70.2, 70.1, and 78.7 (a career best), which suggests he doesn’t have to be a Pro Bowler to be effective.
If you don’t have hope Leno can turn it around in his age 29 season, then check out the video breakdown from Robert Schmitz of Windy City Gridiron. In addition to analyzing what went wrong, Schimtz highlights Leno’s strengths in pass-protection and some encouraging trends after a slow start to 2019. You’ll want to watch the whole thing for yourself. If you go into it with an open mind, there is a good chance you’ll come away thinking Leno’s season wasn’t as awful as once thought.
Leno isn’t an elite left tackle. But a return to being average — a level Leno played at for four years — would be a significant improvement. And frankly, that is totally attainable based on his track record.
This is obviously a bit out of the Bears control, over course. As is …
Bobby Massie Regains His Pass-Blocking Prowess
Massie’s play at right tackle hurt the Bears offense. But unlike Leno, who has a longer track record of having a higher floor, Massie is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a season that ended with him missing the last five games because of an ankle injury.
The Bears probably need Massie to reach deep and re-create his 2018 season. That year, Massie allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits, and 23 hurries on his pass blocks. According to PFF, his 210.7 pass blocks per knockdown in 2018 was the fourth best among all qualifying tackles since the site’s inception. His 78.9 pass-blocking grade was damn good, too. Please be that guy again.
Filling Kyle Long’s Vacancy with a Real Upgrade
Rashaad Coward’s play suggested he wasn’t ready to take the full-time gig. Preseason standout Alex Bars played just 12 offensive snaps, nine of which game in the season finale. And while I’m not saying Bars would have a starting spot locked down had he received more playing time, but not giving him an opportunity after going above and beyond in order to keep him from signing a deal with the Patriots and on the team’s practice squad was curious. I hope this missed opportunity doesn’t cost the team in the long run. But I digress, because there is still the matter of finding a starting guard.
Brandon Scherff received the exclusive franchise tag from Washington, so he is off the table. Joe Thuney is the best interior lineman on the market, but will likely be priced out of the Bears’ spending range (UPDATE: He’s been tagged). Graham Glasgow is an option, though his projected price tag could be too rich for Chicago if they don’t create ample cap space. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has experience across the line, but signing him would be more about making a bet on upside than floor. Beyond these free agent options, the Bears are left with slim pickings.
Stefen Wisniewski is an intriguing under-the-radar target. Wisniewski, 30, is a two-time Super Bowl champ who has experience at guard and center. He should have a grasp of the concepts in Matt Nagy’s offense (having played for Doug Pederson and Andy Reid), and having crossed paths with new Bears QBs Coach John DeFilippo twice (Oakland 2012-14, Philadelphia 2016-17) can’t hurt.
An outside-of-the-box idea from elsewhere in free agency:
Former #Titans and #Eagles G Chance Warmack is aiming at a comeback after sitting out last season. The former first-round pick, who turns 29 in September, has visits lined up with teams once facilities reopen. Has hired a new agent in Ron Slavin of @SPORTSTARSNYC.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 14, 2020
Perhaps Chance Warmack is someone who could be an option after spending a year on hiatus. Warmack crossed paths with DeFilippo when both were in Philadelphia in 2017. Prior to that, he started for the Titans in 2013, when current Bears Passing Game Coordinator Dave Ragone was Tennessee’s QBs/WRs Coach.
At the core of the Bears’ woeful offensive season was an offensive line that struggled in pass protection and run blocking.
Chicagos’ offensive line was bad, broken, and hurt throughout the 2019 season. But getting back to 2018 levels, while a challenge, feels more attainable than I would have previously expected. However, I get a sense the Bears must strike in free agency to get the ball rolling in the right direction. Because despite needs at quarterback, tight end, and wide receiver, solving issues on the front line could go a long way toward putting skill position players in a place to thrive.
Later this morning, the “legal tampering” negotiation period will begin and Chicago can talk shop with representation for players at any and all positions of need. Simply put, they should focus on the offensive line. If they do so – and do it successfully – positive regression can be had for the offense (and team as a whole).