Chicago Bears: Even with free agent signings, O-line still not set in stone
The Bears have added some new faces to the offensive line. Who might be starting in Week 1?
As you’re scrolling through the list of free agents recently signed by the Chicago Bears, you might think that they’re trying to create Denver Broncos East.
With the signing of center/guard Manny Ramirez and safety/special-team standout Omar Bolden, the Bears have seven former Broncos that played for coach John Fox in Denver on their roster (signed this year: Ramirez, Bolden, linebacker Danny Trevathan, long snapper Aaron Brewer; signed last year: receiver Eddie Royal, defensive lineman Mitch Unrein, and cornerback Tracy Porter).
Amidst all of these Broncos, the Bears have also brought in a couple of ex-Arizona Cardinals—right tackle Bobby Massie and center/guard Ted Larsen—to fill in holes along the offensive line. Massie was brought in to assume the starting right tackle role, thereby allowing Kyle Long to slide back into the right guard position where he road-grated people his first two years in the league.
The Ramirez and Larsen signings, meanwhile, provide veteran depth at the interior offensive line positions; Ramirez has made 65 starts over his nine-year career at center and guard while Larson has made 57 starts over fix years, mostly at guard.
These moves load the Bears up with depth and versatility along the line and provide significantly more proven alternatives to Vladimir Ducasse and Patrick Omameh at the right guard spot. What they don’t do, however, is provide a clear picture of what this offensive line will look like when the Bears prepare for Week 1.
For one, the acquisition of Ramirez and Larsen, while obviously good as depth signings, should also be drawing everyone’s attention to a somewhat concerning fact: the Bears still don’t know if last year’s third round pick Hroniss Grasu is capable of taking over the center spot. Having to endure a trial-by-fire in 2015 after then-starter and former Bear Will Montgomery broke his leg, Grasu battled but ultimately could not hide his lack of strength, which got him into trouble against overpowering interior defensive linemen. For example (Grasu is #55 at center):
This play counts on him beating the Packers’ Letroy Guion to the spot so that Matt Forte can run right between him and the tackle or possibly have a lane to cut back. Instead, Guion blows this play up by throwing Grasu into Forte’s lap for a loss.
Coming out of Oregon, Grasu was praised greatly for his run blocking, but we have to remember that scheme was predicated on zone blocking and sweeps in a spread offense that utilized his athletic ability out on the edge, which is what drew the Bears to him in the first place.
Unless Grasu gets much stronger or drastically improves his technique this offseason, his issues with in-line run blocking will likely persist, which does not bode well for his inclusion in the power running schemes Fox prefers. This is where Ramirez and Larsen come in.
Signing these two players for additional depth at center means that Matt Slauson can stay at left guard (where he graded out as the best Bears lineman both in 2013 and 2014, according to Pro Football Focus) rather than having to fill in at center, as he was last year when Montgomery and Grasu could not play.
In particular, Ramirez quietly had a very solid year last year, if PFF grading him as the best player on the Detroit Lions’ offensive line despite only playing about half of team’s total offensive snaps (though this may not be saying a ton given how awful the Lions’ line was). He would probably be the most logical first choice to take over the center spot if Grasu falters or is injured.
At age 33, though, Ramirez is neither talented nor young enough to be more than a one-year fill-in at center, so if Grasu can’t play his way onto the field, they would need to find a more permanent solution soon.
Larsen, however, provides an extra ripple of intrigue into this equation. While he can certainly be looked for to compete with Grasu and Ramirez for the starting spot at center, there is some speculation about Larsen possibly claiming one of the starting guard spots.
If he does not play center, might he play right guard and take over the spot that Kyle Long appeared to be moving back to with the signing of Bobby Massie? Could this mean that the Bears are still thinking of giving Long another shot at a tackle spot?
Or might Larsen possibly slide over to left guard, which could indicate that Slauson either might take over reps at center or perhaps be a candidate to be traded after becoming the odd man out? Essentially, the question boils down to: what is the Bears’ best offensive line group going to look like?
Though we ultimately aren’t going to figure out who the best five Bears lineman are until they actually hit the field for training camp, it might be wise to take stock of players’ recent performances, especially in the case of Larsen and Massie. Despite getting the chance to start 26 games for the Cardinals over the last two seasons, Larsen has not been more than a replacement level player, at least as projected by PFF. Out of 81 linemen eligible for grading, Larsen ranked 72nd overall, struggling as a run-blocker and even more so in pass protection. Watching him (#62) get abused while trying to hook Guion might give you a hint as to why the Cardinals let him walk…
While his starting experience is well-noted, it would seem extremely dubious to suggest that the Bears would move Slauson, either positionally or in a deal, to give Larsen a starting spot at guard.
Interestingly, his longtime teammate Massie has typically graded well blocking the run throughout his career but has been abysmal in the passing game: in 2,084 career snaps in pass protection, he has a -38.3 career grade, with 0.0 being average). Here, he (#70) forfeits his inside leverage immediately and gets beaten right across his face, allowing his man to exploit the collapsed pocket for a sack.
Knowing Massie’s limitations, it’s not at all unfair to think that your best option at right tackle could be either Long or Charles Leno, who played well enough last year on the left side to be viewed as the frontrunner to start at that position coming into this season (unless the Bears decide that’s where Long’s future is or draft a tackle in the first few rounds).
At the same time, playing Long at tackle opens the door for another Ducasse/Omameh situation at right guard, and as Massie has only played right tackle in his career, it’s not just a given that you could stick him at guard and expect that his run-blocking ability will overcome his inexperience at the position. Unless the Bears draft someone that can compete for playing time on the right side immediately, they’ll have to pick their poison.
As currently constructed, the best projected starting five for the Bears—from left to right—could well be Leno, Slauson, Ramirez, Long, and Massie. Grasu will be given every opportunity to seize the starting spot throughout training camp and may even open the season as the starter, but unless he has made the physical and technique-related adjustments that will allow him to better hold his ground, the Bears might prefer the veteran presence of Ramirez at center to keep themselves competitive.
As mentioned before, playing Massie could get the Bears in trouble on passing downs, but given how much Fox likes to the run the ball, the scheme might minimize the damage that can be done by having a subpar pass protector on the outside. Also, given the success they had throwing Leno into the mix last year, the Bears coaching staff must think they have the capability to shore up some of the weaknesses along the line by teaching better technique.
Also, a total wildcard in all of this is last year’s sixth round pick Tayo Fabuluje; should he emerge as a surprise contender at the right tackle position, Massie might end up being pushed into a swing tackle spot with either Grasu or Larsen battling for a final roster spot (Grasu likely would get the nod there, being a third round pick of the current regime).
Bottom line: no one, not even the Bears organization, has an entirely clear picture of what this offensive line is going to look like on Week 1. And while they have done their best to add quality depth, the Bears might still be one player away from really completing this unit and giving Jay Cutler and the running game their best possible protection.
How they navigate that quandary is going to be one of the most talked-about issues with this team from now until the regular season kicks off in September, and perhaps beyond.