Second year center Hroniss Grasu’s development will be critical to the Chicago Bears success in 2016.
While the Chicago Bears made significant strides in improving their defense from year one to year two of the Ryan Pace/John Fox regime, there are plenty of questions left on the offensive side of the ball.
Can TE Zach Miller stay healthy and is there sufficient depth behind him? Can the trio of RBs- Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, and Jordan Howard- fill in for the loss of Matt Forte? Will Jay Cutler continue to progress under offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains? Will WR Kevin White improve upon his route running and find that chemistry with Cutler? This list goes on.
But of all the questions surrounding the offense, one stands out prominently: how will second-year C Hroniss Grasu transition from year one to year two of his NFL career? Grasu’s development is crucial to the Bears’ success.
The center is one of the most important offensive positions
Centers anchor the offensive line, call out protections by identifying potential blitzing defenders, coordinate which linemen will be assigned to which defenders, must have the strength to take on defending mammoth-sized nose tackles post snap, and must have the athleticism to get to the second level on running plays to pick up blocks.
With the Bears moving to a zone blocking scheme under Loggains, which he embraced as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, centers become even more critical. The center is required to immediately recognize what front the defense is in at the line of scrimmage, take into account a multitude of scenarios in which the defense may blitz, and must maintain the central integrity of the line as it shifts laterally, typical of zone blocking schemes.
The Bears depth at center is now lacking
Veteran C Manny Ramirez was brought in earlier this offseason to push Grasu and compete for the starting center position. But with Ramirez’s sudden and unexpected retirement announcement last week, the Bears will need to rely on Grasu to lead the offensive line, barring the Bears bringing in another veteran center.
Grasu serves as a barometer of the Bears ability to draft and develop talent
Most importantly, the development of Grasu from will be telling of the Bears’ ability to draft and develop talent. A skill the Bears must have on both sides of the ball if the Bears are to become Super Bowl contenders.
Regarding drafting Grasu, the Bears had very high grades on him. “Hroniss is easy. His makeup is off the charts. There are certain guys on our board that we’ll check a Bears’ box, it’ll be a little Bear that pops up on a magnet. To us, that’s a guy who has every trait we’re looking for. His makeup is outstanding. Grasu is one of those guys,” Pace said of Grasu.
What are those traits? “The standout traits with [Grasu] is his quickness and his balance. He’s excellent at the second level. He’s quick on reach blocks. His makeup is outstanding. When you talk about work ethic, team captain, leadership, all those traits we stress around here, he brings that to the table,” Pace continued.
Pace went on to remark that “he is a highly intelligent player. . . . His athleticism really jumps out, just his quickness and his balance. And the things you look for in a center. Lateral quickness is important for a center. The ability to reach a nose tackle. He’s got all those traits. Physically he has everything we’re looking for. And then mentally, the intelligence factor in a center is huge, and he definitely has that.”
Notwithstanding the high praise, the Bears originally planned to redshirt and develop Grasu in 2015 as he sat behind veteran C Will Montgomery. But after Montgomery suffered a broken fibula in just the fourth game of the season, Grasu was called into action.
But Grasu noticeably struggled. He was frequently overpowered by opposing lineman, and he was often knocked backwards at the point of attack. As an example, in his first NFL series when he suited up against the Kansas City Chiefs, DT Dontari Poe overpowered Grasu, leading Poe to strip- sack Cutler for a safety.
Further, the Bears running game suffered when Grasu was on the field. In the 8 games he started for the Bears in the 2015 season, the team averaged just 3.77 yards per carry, as opposed 4.12 yards per carry when he wasn’t playing center.
Moreover, it was clear Grasu needed a better handle on the playbook. During week 11 of the 2015 season against the Denver Broncos, the Bears were down 17-15 and needed a two-point conversion to tie the game with 24 seconds left in regulation.
Cutler called an audible from a pass to a run play after seeing the Broncos defensive alignment, but Grasu didn’t catch the audible and stood his ground in pass protection, failing to complete his assignment on the play. Although not entirely Grasu’s fault, the Bears failed their two-point conversion, costing them the game.
Can Grasu make the needed jump in year two? Can the Bears coaching staff develop Grasu into a reliable, starting center for the Bears?
The good news is that it seems the Bears are making the right moves for Grasu’s development. Regarding improving his strength and ability gain leverage to win at the point of attack, the Bears’ Sports Science Coordinator Jennifer Gibson was able work in conjunction with Grasu’s personal trainer to bulk up him up from around 290 lbs. to 310 lbs., without compromising his athleticism.
“That’s the heaviest I’ve ever been, but I don’t feel like it,” Grasu said following a Bears’ OTA. “I feel like I’m in the 290s. My body-fat percentage is the same as it was before when I was in the high-290s, 300. So it’s all good.”
Next, it seems the Bears correctly identified Grasu’s work ethic and football character when drafting him, as has put in consistent work in the offseason to improve in all areas. “I found one thing a week to focus on physically and mentally and I did that all offseason and it’s really been paying off,” said Grasu.
And notably, he identified and worked on his own biggest need. Grasu stated, “The biggest thing for me this offseason was learning the playbook even more and getting more comfortable with the playbook to where I don’t have to think any more on the field. I can just go fast and be confident and play to my strengths, which is being fast and being quick.”
There is no doubt Grasu’s development will be critical to the Bears offensive line performance. But signs are pointing upward for Grasu. The staff was able to get him on the right diet to increase his strength without slowing him down, and he put in serious work in the offseason to prepare for a significant step forward- both testaments to the Bears ability to draft and develop talent.