The Chicago Bears’ 2020 season was essentially four seasons wrapped into one. Early season highs, mid-season lows, a Mitchell Trubisky tour, and a humbling ending put things into perspective.
Looking ahead, the 2021 offseason could very well dictate the long-term future of the franchise. GM Ryan Pace enters the final year of his contract. He needs to prove he can find a quarterback and unearth offensive skill players. And Head Coach Matt Nagy has two seasons remaining on his deal. But he might not make it to next year if he can’t show that his offense can work. But before we cross those bridges, let’s take a position-by-position look at the team heading into a pivotal offseason for the Bears franchise.
Today: Offensive line
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Depending on your point of view, it’s probably good news seeing that four of the five starers who were part of an improved group down the stretch. And if you add James Daniels to the mix with Charles Leno Jr., Cody Whitehair, Alex Bars, and Sam Mustipher, this collection of linemen could be better positioned in the trenches in 2021.
Joining that group of projected starters who also happen to be under contract are Bobby Massie (more on him in a bit), Dieter Eiselen, Arlington Hambright, Lachavious Simmons, and Badara Traore. Hambright and Simmons were seventh-round draft picks in 2020, but are still projects. Same for last year’s UDFAs, Eiselen and Traore. It would be nice for a few of these players to grow into usable depth pieces, but none of them are at that point yet.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
Germain Ifedi is the only starter from last year’s line who isn’t on the books for 2021. Ifedi began the season at guard before moving to right tackle out of necessity. In the right system, Ifedi could be a valuable sixth offensive lineman, someone who can start in a pinch and not tank your line’s production. Knowing the Bears’ history with a lack of depth, they should consider retaining Ifedi in that role (but only if the price is right).
Rashaad Coward made 15 starts over the last two seasons. And while the converted nose tackle gave us a fun story to follow, his play at right guard and right tackle was unsatisfactory. Maybe he could be a late-bloomer who grows into the position after putting in more work on his craft. But the Bears can’t afford to start a project if they’re in a competitive window.
Jason Spriggs comes off the books after playing just eight games in his first (and perhaps, only) year with the Bears after four seasons with the Packers
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
Both tackles are serious cut candidates, but for different reasons.
Chicago could release Bobby Massie, creating $5.4 million in cap space by doing so. Massie’s strengths were in durability and reliability, but injuries cut short his last two seasons. And as he enters his age 32 season, it might make most sense to part ways with him now. Should the Bears decide they want to spread the dead money hit over two years, the team could clear $8 million in a post-June 1 cut, leaving the team with $1.3 million of “dead money.”
Cutting Charles Leno Jr. is a popular sentiment in some circles, although I struggle to see why. Leno isn’t a top-tier left tackle, but he isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel guy either. But sometimes, it’s difficult to draw a line between being league average at a premier position and being a cut below. And it’s not as Leno is being paid beyond his production. But for the sake of this post, it’s worth pointing out the Bears could cut Leno and create $6.2 million in cap space. Although, it would come with a $5.1 million hit in the dead money department. A post-June 1 cut could spread that hit over two years, making it a more sightly $2.3 million — all while clearing $9 million in cap room.
Remember, post-June 1 cut designations can be used for only two players. So should the Bears decide to go this route, they should choose wisely.
Cap numbers via OverTheCap.com
Before we jump into addressing the group with external options, the Bears must once again do some self-scouting internally.
Cody Whitehair’s move to left guard was better this time around than it was in 2019. Perhaps that’s a move that becomes a full-time shift after seeing how the line operated after the bye last season. But if Whitehair slides to left guard, where does that leave James Daniels? The Iowa product was better as a left guard as a rookie, struggled to find his footing as a center in Year 2, and looked to be coming into his own in his full-time return to guard in Year 3.
Going back to center moves Sam Mustipher off a spot where he looked solid last year. Is a slide to right guard in play? Or did Alex Bars make enough of a case to his coaches? During Daniels’ first training camp, I wondered if his skill set and athleticism could allow him to slide into a tackle spot at some point. If that possibility can work, then the Bears could have a cost-efficient replacement at an important position.
THE FREE AGENT MARKET INCLUDES…
SEVEN DRAFT-ELIGIBLE PROSPECTS
⇒ Rashawn Slater, Northwestern (OT)
⇒ Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State (OT)
⇒ Teven Jenkins, Oklahoma State (OT)
⇒ Wyatt Davis, Ohio State (G)
⇒ Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater (G)
⇒ Landon Dickerson, Alabama (C)
⇒ Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma (C)
It really hit me in December that this was shaping up to be a good draft for teams that needed offensive linemen.
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
Drafting to fill a starting role and depth should be a priority for the Bears this offseason.
In addition to the aforementioned names above, Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame), Jalen Mayfield (Michigan), Walker Little (Stanford), and Alex Leatherwood (Alabama) stand out as prized draft prospects in this class when Chicago goes on the clock. Having a deep class of linemen with Week 1 starters at several positions reminds me it’s a good thing the Bears have a first-round draft pick this year. Well, at least they do for now.
Free agency is a different animal. There is an easy argument for the Bears to shop at the top of the market if they can. But there is a more measured and nuanced debate to be made that the Bears should be working on finding value. Ultimately, it’s best to land the right fit than the most expensive one.
In any case, the Bears could stand to add a veteran starter at tackle and perhaps someone who can take over as a rookie. Think along the lines of how Eric Kush was a place-holder for James Daniels in 2018. But they should also bulk up with depth along the interior of the line, too. Whether it’s in terms of someone to compete with Alex Bars or Sam Mustipher, or outright replace them as a starter to push them into swing depth roles. In the end, the Bears need to address the line with vigor. Ignoring the problems (again) will only muck things for whomever is quarterbacking in 2021.