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Bears free agency preview 2018: Offensive line

A Bears' position of strength just a year ago, is now in flux. Taking a look at the offensive line open market.

Carolina Panthers vs  New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

More than any other position, when there isn't success, turnover happens quickly on the offensive line. Perception changes too. The NFL or "Not For Long" tolls for the big boys up front when they can't get the job done.

A year after surviving an injury to Kyle Long and a late preseason addition of Josh Sitton, the Bears' offensive line was sunk by a less-than-healthy Long, a nonsensical constant jostling of Cody Whitehair, and a slight drop play in from Sitton. Couple an offensive coordinator in Dowell Loggains, who elected to make Chicago's offense more predictable than ever - placing the team in less than ideal 3rd and long situations - and you had the recipe for disaster.

A year after relatively successfully platooning on the offensive line, the Bears somehow allowed more sacks (39) in 2017 than they did in 2016 (27). Jordan Howard, despite starting all 16 games, ran for almost 200 less yards and averaged over a full yard per carry lower than his sparkling rookie 2016 season. Dramatic step backs that are jarring over a month after the season's end.

Now again, a lot of this can be blamed on an offensive game plan that couldn't have been bothered to place it's players in position to succeed. How can you justifiably put the brunt of the blame of the Bears' mediocre offense on an offensive line that was sometimes in pieces? Smart coordinators account for what their personnel is capable of, and that didn't happen in Chicago.

Yet that ignores an increasingly precarious roster situation for the Bears. Many hope for the team to make an Eagles or Rams-like jump success wise in 2017. Those leaps were built on a foundation of strong offensive line play. Los Angeles went out and acquired one of the NFL's best tackles in Andrew Whitworth. Meanwhile, Philadelphia built the league's best front five that was able to withstand the loss of a generational left tackle in Jason Peters. They withstood it so well, one could've argued that the Eagles' offensive line depth and talent was the reason they won the Super Bowl.

It's entirely impossible to paint that rosy situation with the Bears, even with the addition of the highly respected Harry Hiestand as offensive line coach. That's because, outside of Charles Leno Jr. - who doesn't receive enough credit as a more than able left tackle anchor - the rest of the unit's future is up in the air. Offensive line success in football is built on continuity. For the moment, Chicago has only questions instead of chemistry.

There's the left guard Sitton - who while has carved out a quality two years on the lakefront after being a late summer 2016 release by the Packers - will also be 32-years-old by the start of next season. He'll cost $8.6 million dollars next year if the Bears pick up his option (the window to do so opened last week), and has a previous history of back injuries that haven't crept up yet in Chicago. Simply standing pat with Sitton isn't the worst idea as he's still effective. Releasing him isn't the worst move either with the future in mind, even as it creates a short term gap.

Then Whitehair comes into the picture. After a strong rookie season at center that saw Whitehair graded as one of 2016's best second round picks, early position juggling threw the 25-year-old for a loop. A loop that saw egregiously awful snaps at center and occasional average play at guard. The Bears feel comfortable in moving Whitehair to guard because he's athletic to be able to handle the responsibility. That also means they need to pick a position with him as opposed to constantly leaving him out to dry.

You can't move around your foundational talents and constantly weaken other positions because of injury. That's not how a functional organization operates. Offensive linemen work most optimally from a comfort standpoint. Hiestand and company are going to have to decide where Whitehair fits like a glove and keep him there for necessary focus.

We come to the not one, but two elephants in the room: Long and right tackle Bobby Massie.

In Long's corner, whenever he does return from multiple surgeries to his neck, shoulder, and a continually recovering ankle, he'll have to answer with a clean bill of health that isn't rushed. After all, the five-year veteran will be 30 by next December. It's time to start safely considering whether Long's best years are behind him, and whether he's a long-term option to retain.

He'll assuredly be with the Bears through 2018, but after that, any decision on Long's place with the Bears is up in the air due to a decreasing dead cap hit from a contract extension signed back in 2016. If Chicago was forward thinking, they'd not only be extremely patient with Long's recovery process this time around, but also have contingencies in place in the scenario he doesn't return to high quality form. Get Long to actually finish the 2018 season and have a plan in place in case he doesn't. A novel concept.

Massie, more than anybody, is the candidate with the least chance of not returning to Chicago. A release at any point, whether it be in March or in the summer, would mean only $500,000 in dead cap space. Massie isn't an awful player by any means. It's more that selling and seeing him as the entrenched starter at right tackle in a modern NFL where both sides of the coin are equally important, seems fruitless. At minimum, the Bears would ideally find a developmental prospect in the draft to eventually take over for their good soldier veteran.

Then again, all of this offensive line discussion could be moot depending on Hiestand's decision-making. Hiestand stands to have more autonomy than most in the evaluation of the position because of his background. If he determines that these are the five guys the Bears go with in 2018, then that's what will happen. Here's a hunch that that won't happen anyway.

It's time to window shop offensive line options on the free agent market for the Bears.

Andrew Norwell, Guard, Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers vs  New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Bears have already invested so much into the interior of their offensive line in the past few seasons, that it's plausible they don't dive into the well again. They'd be mistaken not to consider the 2017 First-Team All-Pro and 26-year-old Norwell for that matter.

Norwell, entering the prime of his career, is inherently different from additions like Sitton. And is more in the mold of extending someone such as Long before an unfortunate injury-riddled past two seasons. Right now, he's the best guard, or rather, the best guard with the most amount of good years ahead of him in the NFL. The Panthers themselves would love nothing more than to retain his services. It's more of rampant cap issues and an anticipated huge second contract for Norwell that will keep them from accomplishing that.

Let's say the Bears decline to pick up Sitton's option. What's to stop them from using newly found cap space (with a little sprinkle on top) in signing a player like Norwell that's six years younger? Absolutely nothing. There's nothing wrong with that ideal as the complete stature of Norwell as a mauler in the run game and wall of a pass protector is brought in.

The only issue with Norwell is whether the Bears would be willing to win a bidding war for his services. There are already reports that the Giants with new head coach Pat Shurmur will elect to go all in for Norwell. If New York "Godfathers" Norwell, it's difficult to envision Ryan Pace continuing to pony up based on his prior free agent history. Think of a deal in the realm of Long's four years and $40 million with $18 million guaranteed, and you have a minimal baseline of what Norwell will command.

Though, in a year where the clock on Pace's tenure as general manager officially begins, everything's on the table.

Nate Solder, Left Tackle, New England Patriots

AFC Championship - Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

On paper, the tackle market in free agency is by far the worst group of any. It isn't a good year if you're seeking a bona fide true upgrade on either side. That makes Solder - a man who has protected Tom Brady's blind side for some time - the cream of the crop, and someone who stands to benefit from the barren market.

Solder, who will be 30 by next year, has been one of the league's more underrated tackles for some time. A consistent player both in play and health (aside from 2015), he's been the offensive line anchor for the Patriots recent return of dominance in the 2010's.

What's particularly attractive for the Bears other than Solder's pedigree, is that he has experience playing on the right side: where he played for much of his rookie 2011 season. If the Bears did acquire the veteran, they could keep Leno as their man on the left and ask Solder to retrain himself to the right, which isn't out of the realm of their reasonable thinking.

The only roadblocks here are convincing Solder to actually leave New England should the Patriots not kick the tires on his return. If the Patriots pull out the stops to appropriately pay their integral offensive front piece, Solder will stay with them for likely the remainder of his career. It's about the absolute promise of contention for a championship, security, and familiarity through a final twilight. As opposed to security, uprooting your family, and merely the hopeful thought of contention for a championship in Chicago.

In regards to the Patriots and veterans seeking a payday, Solder may yet hit the open market regardless: based on New England's prior history of cutting bait with guys they don't deem worthy. From their perspective, that would be a mistake. For the Bears, offering terms of something over four to five years and close to $50 million with almost $20 million guaranteed, makes it their net gain.

Zach Fulton, Guard/Center, Kansas City Chiefs

Divisional Round - Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Here's where the Bears' offensive line situation gets most fascinating with a sizable domino: a signing of Fulton would likely predetermine a move of Whitehair to either guard spot, and a goodbye to Sitton. All rolled into one..

That's because while Fulton is versatile enough to play at both guard spots, which he did in 2017, he was also the Chiefs' starting center. In fact, any team that signs him would certainly have Fulton lined up to man the offensive middle. So, in Chicago, Whitehair would in turn take over for Sitton on the left side, or take over for Long on the right side with Long kicking back out to the left. Mind you, the latter was the original Bears' plan before injuries took their toll.

Of all the signings, Fulton would also present the top value because of that domino effect and as he wouldn't cost as much to acquire. He's a capable starting center, but nothing spectacular, and in turn shouldn't command too much as an unrestricted free agent. He also effectively allows the Bears to reshuffle their interior, as mentioned, without making much of any other free agent decisions or draft picks.

An underrated note, is that Fulton is also a natural Bears' fit because of his familiarity with Matt Nagy as well as Harry Hiestand, who coached him in college at Tennessee. Not many men better understand who Fulton is as a player than these two, which serves the Bears well in the recruiting process. It's never a bad thing to have an already established rapport with a 26-year-old, versatile, and ascending player. That's how a core offensive line is built: trust.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.