What are the Interior Offensive Line Options for the Bears?
The Bears have addressed every position of need this offseason except for interior offensive lineman.
In 2019, the Chicago Bears had 20 of 23 (nickel corner included) returning starters. This is partially because the Bears felt comfortable with a young and improving roster, but the main reason is that their draft capital and salary cap were limited. Ryan Pace wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. He’s already made multiple transactions in efforts to improve the roster. Robert Quinn, Jimmy Graham, and Nick Foles were the headliners in the first wave of free agency, but signings like Artie Burns, Barkevious Mingo, and Jordan Lucas were a little more under the radar. There is one commonality in all these signings — none of them are offensive lineman.
Ryan Pace has addressed every hole on the roster except for interior offensive line. Cody Whitehair and James Daniels are the two returning starters, but the Bears are going to need a third. This article will explore realistic options that can fill the Bears’ hole at interior offensive line.
Alex Bars’ name has been tossed around as a possible starter in 2020. Bars was signed by the Bears as a UDFA last offseason. He started at tackle during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, but an ACL tear kept him sidelined for the 2018 season. The prognosis of his injury caused a projected second-round player to fall out of the draft, and luckily for the Bears, his former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was still part of the coaching staff and was able to scout him to the Bears. Bars performed well in the preseason and quickly proved he was worthy of a draft selection.
The reason I have such a hard time slotting him in as the starter is that when the Bears needed a guard during the season, they opted to start Rashaad Coward instead of Bars. Did the Bears want to give Bars a redshirt season so he could fully recover and adjust to the NFL? It’s a possibility. The New England Patriots offered Bars a contract and a spot on their 53-man roster last year while he was on the Bears practice squad. Ryan Pace quickly responded by increasing Bars’ pay and promoting him to the 53-man roster. It’s clear the Bears wanted Bars on the team.
Michael Person is an NFL journeyman. He’s been on five teams over 12 years, but his most recent stint was with the San Francisco 49ers. Person wouldn’t be considered a big-splash signing, but Ryan Pace has already cannonballed his salary cap for 2020. Many people assume the Bears will have more cap space because they will extend Allen Robinson and structure his contract to give the Bears more flexibility, but it hasn’t happened yet. Ryan Pace has re-structured and pushed as much cap back as he can, and another huge contract would mean he’s all in. Pace wouldn’t be planning for the future anymore, and it would indicate his seat is warming up. This is why the Bears should be exploring Person.
In 2018, Michael Person was signed to a minimal deal by the San Francisco 49ers. After starting all 16 games of the 2018 season, he received a three-year, $8.25 million ($2.45M guaranteed) contract. The 49ers were able to cut him this offseason without any cap penalty, but he was expecting to make $2.5 million dollars. Is Person the ‘road grater’ the Chicago Bears fans want Ryan Pace to sign? No, but if the Bears pursue Michael Person, they’ll get interior lineman with starting experience on a cap-friendly deal.
Ryan Pace never wants to go into a draft without having starter-level competition at each position. His motto is to draft the ‘best player avaliable,’ regardless of position. While the two players above could provide that competition, the Bears do have two second-round picks (43rd and 50th) and Ryan Pace’s two other starting interior lineman are both second-round picks. This year’s draft class is deep at tackle, and if one of the six first-round graded prospects falls to them in the second round, he’ll have to take one. The Bears are tied to both of their tackles, but it’s not uncommon to see tackles start their career at guard and move over after they develop. Tackles are a premium position, so it’s highly unlikely one of the top tackle prospects will be sitting there for the Bears at 43.
The 2020 draft class’s interior lineman is the opposite scenario. There aren’t any top-end prospects, and even if there was, it’s rare to see interior lineman flying off the board in the first two rounds of the draft. Over the last decade, there has been an average of four IOL taken in the top 50 picks. The most IOL taken in the top 50 picks from 2010-2019 was seven. There have only been three IOL taken in the top ten since 2010. Unless there’s a Quenton Nelson type IOL prospect, they’re falling further than they should. If you’d like to see more statistical breakdowns of draft tendencies, click here.
There are a few quality IOL prospects that may fall to the Bears in the NFL Draft. Cesar Ruiz, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Netane Muti are the most common names in mock drafts. All three of these players could go top 50 or higher, so if one falls to the Bears, it’s likely they’ll draft them. One name that has been linked to the Bears is Matt Hennessy from Temple. The Bears did interview him at the Senior Bowl, but his draft stock isn’t as high as the others. Some sites rank Hennessy in the top 50 and some have him right below 100. It would be a reach to draft him in the second round, and the Bears don’t have a third or fourth-round pick. If the Bears traded down to pick up a couple of extra mid-round picks, then Hennessy would have a better chance of ending up with the Bears.
Josh Jones, the tackle out of Houston, was also interviewed by the Bears. The Bears interviewed Jones as a ‘Top 30’ visit, however, which carries more weight. He is one of those fringe tackles previously referenced. Some analysts have him going late in the first round, and some have him going early in the second. It’s unlikely that Jones falls to 43, but if he does slip enough, Pace may able to trade up a few spots to draft him.
Ryan Pace has made multiple transactions this offseason, and none have addressed their needs on the offensive line. Most value signings come in the second and third waves of free agency, so it’s possible Pace has already started negotiations with a free agent. They don’t have the cap space to sign any top-end IOL free agents, and at a minimum, they will need to address depth options during free agency. The Bears will need to add to their offensive line in both free agency and through the draft. Whether they use a second or late-round pick remains to be seen. They may feel they have a starting-caliber player in Alex Bars currently on the roster, but no one knows this for certain. The only certainty is that they need to find a starting IOL by the time the season starts.