When taking an honest look at roster strengths of the Chicago Bears as currently constructed, you’d be hard pressed to ignore the interior offensive wall the Bears have built themselves.
A simple gathering of the accolades should be enough to impress. With Josh Sitton’s third straight Pro Bowl and fourth overall announced on Monday, there’s quite the pedigree between an all-star trio of mammoths. Chicago’s interior now features a four-time Pro Bowler and three time second team All-Pro left guard in Sitton, a three-time Pro Bowler (one of which at right tackle) and 2014 second team All-Pro in right guard, Kyle Long, and a PFWA All-Rookie performer at center in Cody Whitehair. A last-minute gift from the Packers in Sitton was all that was needed to accomplish this amassed talent.
Given Sitton’s age (he will be 31 next season) this wall will eventually crumble in due time, but for now, it’s not a stretch to consider that Chicago may have the league’s best interior offensive line in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus echoed the same sentiment for a line that ranked right around smack dab (15th) in the middle of all 32 teams. According to them, Sitton only allowed six pressures on 468 passing snaps. Factor in Long’s excellent play until an injury suffered against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10, along with Whitehair’s seized role as the offensive line’s leader, and you have your reason as to why the Bears’ front was as a whole, at least, competent. Chicago allowed only 28 sacks in 2016, the lowest figure since 2006’s Super Bowl berth.
It brings to mind the younger New Orleans Saints model of building an offensive line from the inside-out with the current and former four-time All-Pro in Jahri Evans and cast-offs, Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs. The Saints never had a dominant anchor at tackle such as Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns or the Dallas Cowboys’ Tyron Smith, and they didn’t have to. Players like Jermon Bushrod, Zach Strief, and others, have been and were enough.
Last year’s NFC Champion in the Carolina Panthers also had a similar construct with right guard, Trai Turner and center, Ryan Kalil - two Pro Bowl caliber players. Unlike the 2009 Saints, the Panthers weren’t able to finish their Super Bowl dream given their objective complete lack of quality on the outside being abused by the Denver Broncos. But, it was enough for them to win their conference.
Is that the same story for general manager Ryan Pace’s Bears, though? It would make sense for Pace to build his offense in a similar fashion to New Orleans given his 14 years with that organization, but that’s quite the atypical mold of an offensive line.
Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie are relatively adequate for Chicago at left and right tackle sure, but one would be remiss not to consider just how great this offensive front can be with one upgrade on either side. Pro Football Focus noted how the pair combined to surrender 73 quarterback pressures, commit 14 penalties, and consistently grade out less than able in the run game in 2016. Of course, these grades and statistics are accumulated without a note of said tackle’s responsibilities and purely from film without that reference. No one can evaluate like an organization can do for it’s own after all.
Yet, they are troubling nonetheless for a team trying to follow that inside-out model. It’s difficult to argue these two didn’t hold the Bears back.
Both Leno Jr. and Massie weren’t always awful this past season per say, but they weren’t great either, and both should be replaced.
Key word, should.
Leno Jr. and Massie aren’t liabilities, but they’re not particular anchors in any sense too. Though, considering how difficult it can be to find one quality and stable tackle, let alone two, as most fronts have a weakness they have to scheme around for - it’s ambitious to believe the Bears would be able to replace both in one offseason.
Naturally, there are caveats. Such as pondering: Who is the weaker link? And positional value, or at least traditional positional value coming into play.
A left tackle is your primary and most important pass protector given that this is most quarterbacks’ blind side. They must be sound in technique with their hands, athleticism, and patience - especially against the league’s onslaught of dominant pass rushers.
For Leno Jr., he’s below the threshold of even an average left tackle. Based off of the final sack watch, Leno was responsible for most of the Bears’ sacks allowed this year with 5.5. And how he loses to allow pressures or worse, sacks, is what’s disconcerting. As an example, his sack allowed against Julius Peppers in Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers was the greatest demonstrator of his faults. Too often, he’ll allow himself to hesitate, lose focus on assignment, or have his pass-protecting bubble broken without properly engaging his man. Even an old man in the 36-year-old future Hall of Fame pass rusher in Peppers will take advantage of an easy lapse.
Leno Jr. is solid enough to where that doesn’t always happen, but it still does, and it begs the question as to whether there’s any room for him to improve at 25-years-old in now his upcoming fourth season in the NFL. Potentially, he still might, but the case of really late bloomers at left tackle isn’t extensive. Guys like Smith and Thomas flashed much more as elite talents early on in their careers as former top-10 picks, even if the bar they set is extremely high and unrealistic. It’s difficult to imagine a seventh rounder like Leno Jr. improving much moving forward, but he could.
However, given the rough market of free agent left tackles along with a weak draft class, it’s not as if the Bears will have much choice anyway regarding Leno Jr. There aren’t necessary gamers that could dramatically change what Chicago has in tow.
On the other side, Massie was actually quite good for his role as a right tackle. A right tackle is more of a mauler who more often than not is just average in pass protection. I know that Pro Football Focus graded out Massie as a negative run blocker, but he stabilized well after a rough month to start the season. Quietly, Massie did not allow a sack after Week 4, which speaks wonders considering how many criticized his early struggles (including yours truly). Given the pressures, penalties, and other similar lapses in technique like Leno Jr. (Example: foot speed in pass protection), Massie is still far from elite at his position. But, he was an upgrade over 2015 Long, and should be commended as such.
Back in August, Arizona Cardinals head coach, Bruce Arians suggested that the Cardinals were better off without Massie and depth guard, Ted Larsen. I don’t think Arians would echo the same sentiment after this season’s results.
However, unlike the more important left side, Chicago is more equipped to upgrade from Massie even if he’s serviceable. There could be top free agent commodities such as the Detroit Lions’ Riley Reiff and Baltimore Ravens’ Rick Wagner hitting the open market that would send the Bears offensive line into the stratosphere.
Either of these two gentlemen have been high-graded players for their teams - particularly Wagner - that would serve Chicago well to explore given initial cap space without roster cuts (anywhere from $59 to approximately $63 million). Plus, it would push Massie back as a swing tackle.
I know tackle isn’t the greatest need for the Bears, as it’s far down the list of offseason priorities in comparison to safety, cornerback, quarterback, etc. But Chicago’s sterling interior won’t last forever and if you’re a theoretical piece away from having a real championship offensive line over the next several next years, why not take it?
Take a look at the NFL’s final four this year in the Falcons, Patriots, Packers, and Steelers. Those are arguably the NFL’s four best offensive lines at every position. These teams have rarely pressured or sacked quarterbacks with solid running games (except for Green Bay on the latter) because of what these fronts maintain.
Pace would be wise to follow this model while he still can. If there’s one tried and time-honored cliche of football to follow, it’s that the game is won in the trenches. With one move on the offensive front outside, the Bears’ cavalry can preach to that choir.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.