Chicago Bears Free Agent Options: O-Line
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
With the start of free agency right around the corner (March 10th), I’m going to be breaking down a few options for the Chicago Bears at every position. I covered the D-line earlier this week, and will be moving on the offensive line today.
The Bears don’t have many offensive line free agents to decide on, but as part of this series I will be listing the Bears internal free agents at each position with links to posts I did earlier this off-season on whether the Bears should keep that specific player.
After a season where the offensive line drastically under performed, the Bears could look at possible free agent upgrades. Both tackles underwhelmed last season, center Roberto Garza started to look his age, and starting guard Matt Slauson only played 5 games. I will be covering the Bears current situation on the o-line in more depth below.
I will also be listing free agent o-linemen who I think could help the Bears in 2015 and beyond. These aren’t necessarily rankings of the top free agents at each position, but players I think the Bears should target based on scheme fit, salary, and future potential. I’ve broken each position down to four parts: the big ticket signings, starters, young players with starter potential and depth players. At the end of the post, I’ve made my recommendations on which players I think the Bears should target.
Free Agent Breakdown:
D-line | O-line | LB | TE | WR | CB | RB | S | QB
Offensive Line – Bears Free Agents
Offensive Line – Current Situation
After a strong season in 2013 the Bears offensive line fell apart last year. There were injuries to almost every player on the line and regression seasons from everyone except Kyle Long and surprisingly Jordan Mills, but in Mills’ case it would be almost impossible to get worse than he was in 2013. Jermon Bushrod had perhaps the worst season of all the starters, Roberto Garza played like a 35 year old, and Matt Slauson was only healthy for 5 games.
On the bright-side, undrafted rookie Ryan Groy came off the practice squad to play well in three of his four appearances. Groy is a mauling run-blocker who could be an ideal fit for a power running scheme. Fellow rookie Michael Ola looked like a potential starter early in the season, but appeared to hit the rookie wall and really struggled in the second half of 2014. Current LG Matt Slauson is a good fit for a power running scheme as well and the probable starter at the other guard spot which leaves no room for Groy unless the Bears move Pro Bowl RG Kyle Long to tackle.
Moving Long to left tackle and replacing the ineffective Bushrod would open up the RG position for either Groy or Jordan Mills who is probably a better fit inside. That would give the Bears a fairly solid group with only a hole at RT and a potential upgrade needed at center. The center position is underrated; it’s no coincidence that the three NFL teams with the most rushing yards this year (SEA, DAL, NYJ) had the 4th, 2nd, and 1st rated centers according to PFF.
Offensive Line – Free Agent Options
OG Mike Iupati – 28, 49ers (6’5 | 331): He’s been one of the best run blockers in the league since his rookie year in 2010. Iupati a massive interior lineman who consistently drives defenders off the ball while anchoring well in pass protection. He’s made 3 consecutive Pro Bowls and is as much of a sure thing as there is on the O-line free agent market. Iupati is such a consistently good blocker that he’s got a shot to be the highest paid guard in the league. Is it worth it for the Bears to make the investment?
The guard position is probably the least of the Bears concerns with Kyle Long coming off a Pro Bowl season and Matt Slauson just a year removed from being the 6th best guard in the league according to Pro Football Focus. So why shell out $8-$9 million per year on Iupati?
Kyle Long has the size and ability to play tackle on either side of the line and is a great fit at tackle for John Fox’s run heavy scheme. That would leave a hole at guard and there isn’t a better option to fill it then Iupati. A combination of Long and Iupati on the same side of the line would give the Bears one of the most physically dominant run blocking combos in the league.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
OT Bryan Bulaga – 26, Packers (6’5 | 314): By signing Bulaga, the Bears would simultaneously improve their offensive line while making the Packers worse. Sounds like a no-brainer to me, but on paper Bulaga isn’t a perfect fit. He’s significantly better in pass pro than he is as a run blocker and it sounds like new HC John Fox is set on making the Bears a power running team. That being said, Bulaga would still be a massive upgrade over incumbent RT Jordan Mills.
Bulaga has great intangibles and a natural understanding of blocking angles and technique. In pass pro he has a quick kick-slide, a strong punch, uses his hands effectively to keep DEs at bay, and recovers quickly when beat by an initial move. He has the versatility to play on either side, but is better on the right where he was graded as the 4th best RT this season by Pro Football Focus. It’s hard to find a flaw in Bulaga’s game at right tackle, but if there is a concern it would be his durability. He missed all of the 2013 season with an ACL injury and the 2nd half of the 2012 season with a hip injury. Bulaga did play all 16 games last season with the Packers and showed little to no rust after a season and a half layoff.
If the Bears were to sign Bulaga, they would be set at right tackle and could possibly have the best right side in the NFL with the Long / Bulaga combo. The Bears could also move Long to left tackle and insert promising rookie Ryan Groy at RG next to Bulaga. Having Groy next to an experienced, cerebral veteran like Bulaga could hasten Groy’s development and eventually give the Bears a balanced and potentially dominant O-line.