The Bears of recent memory haven’t had problems with their interior offensive line. When you have Kyle Long (a three-time Pro Bowler and 2014 Second-Team All-Pro), Josh Sitton (a 2016 Pro Bowler with Chicago), Cody Whitehair (PFWA’s 2016 All-Rookie Team) and a solid Matt Slauson roaming your building over the last three years, you think nothing of it.
It’s funny how the NFL snowballs roster construction over time.
First, 2015 third-round pick Hroniss Grasu tears his ACL at the Bears’ 2016 Family Fest, essentially catapulting his development. He hasn’t nearly been the same since, struggling with lower body strength, after being entrenched as the Bears’ starter that August.
Cody Whitehair stepped in at center for Grasu, and looked like a future All-Pro. A guy that can be the best at his position for a decade. Without a hint of hyperbole, a worthy heir apparent to Olin Kreutz at center. Surely, the Bears couldn’t mess this up, right?
At the same time that Whitehair flourished, Long tore his labrum. Then injured his triceps. Finally, because bad things happen in threes, he severely injures his right ankle, missing the last eight games of the 2016 season. To get healthy in time for 2017, he skips surgery on his shoulder to focus on rehabilitation for his ankle. That process doesn’t go swimmingly, as he was never fully healthy last season, eventually being placed on injured reserve because of the pure attrition on his body.
Long naturally finally went through surgery to repair his ails this past January, but no one can be sure as to when he’ll return to play, or at what form he’ll play at in his return. A thorough mismanagement by the Bears of formerly one of their top assets. Long turns 30 in December of this year.
To mitigate the intermittent points of Long’s decreasingly consistent health, the Bears moved Whitehair around their offensive line in 2017. Now, Whitehair’s a good player that’ll do whatever’s best for the team, but it serves no purpose to shuffle around a young talent from spot to spot and never letting them get comfortable.
Finish off this bonanza with the release of the aging Sitton, due to a pending roster cap hit of more than $8 million in February, and the Bears possess one player they can reliably count on in their offensive line’s interior in Whitehair. To pour salt in the wound, they probably don’t know where he’s going to play yet. He’s a piece that merely fits in ... somewhere. Whatever selections Chicago makes this year determine where Whitehair plays long term.
So, the Bears need to beef up their offensive middle. Unless there’s tangible belief in 2017 fifth round pick Jordan Morgan or backup Eric Kush being superstars. That’s a novel thought, but naive without further insurance investment.
Someone has to protect Mitchell Trubisky from pending pressure up the middle against the likes of an NFL that’s increasingly becoming more talented with interior pass rushers. Perhaps that man is in the 2018 NFL Draft, which, if memory serves well, has one of the greatest interior offensive line classes: convenient timing in comparison to the defensive edge for the Bears.
Diagramming the Bears’ most best choices and overall interior offensive line situation prior to the draft.
Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
2017 statistics: Too many pancakes to count, a growing fear of the terrifying capabilities of a human being pushed to his limits
Height and weight: 6-foot-5, 325 pounds
Watching Quenton Nelson play is akin to watching a wide receiver at the top of his game, in terms of entertainment value. Offensive linemen, for as integral as they are, don’t usually come with the same finishing mentality to play with a mean streak unmatched like Nelson. Nor are they normally as delightful to view as those who make the acrobatic aesthetically pleasing plays that skill positions do.
Nelson mercilessly driving a defender to the ground is simultaneously a tremendous show of strength and tenacity, and a driving force behind him being one of the most acclaimed offensive line prospects in years. He’s not of this world, he’s not like everyone else in the slightest, he knows it, and he’s going to make you pay for ever getting in his or his team’s way. All while maintaining a straight, emotionless face.
In one of the best interior offensive line classes in a generation - seriously, there are double digit guys who can start right away at guard or center in 2018 - Nelson stands out above the rest of them. He’s in a league of his own. The impact he might make individually is unmatched in comparison to everyone else available. That speaks volumes as to the type of player one lucky NFL team can soon plug in up front.
There are virtually no weaknesses to Nelson’s game. You can’t beat him with a bull rush, because he’s too powerful and technically sound in establishing a base as a taekwondo master. He unleashes his hips seamlessly when rolling through contact so as to maintain as much leverage as possible when driving one or even multiple defenders at a time. His punches in pass protection are deliberate, always well-timed, and sometimes knock defenders off their platform before they begin their pass rushes altogether. He’s also an athlete with a knack for moving in space like a freight train, among many other strengths.
Combine that with an intimidation factor in Nelson that wants to make one pay for crossing him. That seemingly takes every play personally as a measure of his self-worth, and these are the makings of a future Hall of Famer.
There are players in every draft that transcend scheme. Nelson is one of them. There are players in every draft that could play in any era. Nelson is one of them. There are players in every draft that make opponents thoroughly regret choosing football as a profession. Nelson is, too, one of them.
He’s a throwback to a brand of football that isn’t played as often in the modern era. Though, everything he does is completely legal as he coldly sledgehammers defenders.
The most stark aspect to note about Nelson is that he knows he’s an enforcer to be used for someone to run roughshod on the rest of the league. He understands the shift towards stellar interior pass rushers. He wants to be the man that starts an opposite movement: valuing the offensive guard more than ever.
“You have guys dominating the league right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, that have been working on interior guys,” said Nelson at this year’s Scouting Combine. “You need guys to stop them. I’m one of those guys.”
A bold move to call out established stars, but not out of the ordinary for Nelson. Call it a hunch, but I’m not sure the Donald’s of the world are prepared for what’s to come.
Watchers on the Wall
Interior offensive line
Bears’ need: High
Whitehair is someone the Bears can count on, but if you’re going into a season with Kush and Morgan as potential starters, and a recovering Long: that’s a recipe for disaster. Any injuries up front in this scenario mean Trubisky is in trouble. This team wholeheartedly needs a young, reliable piece in the middle. Someone to pair with Whitehair, wherever he slots in, for years to come.
Current roster: Cody Whitehair (two years remaining on rookie contract at an average annual value of $834,052 and $1,026,078, respectively) Kyle Long (three years remaining on contract at an average annual value of $8 million after 2018), Eric Kush (new one-year contract with an average annual value of $1.4 million), Jordan Morgan (three years remaining on rookie contract at an average annual value of roughly $650,000 after 2018), Earl Watford (new one-year contract with an average annual value of $950,000)
Top interior offensive linemen available
- Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame: Hiestand coached impressive offensive line studs during his stay with the Fighting Irish. Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, and Nick Martin were the standouts. Nelson is the cream of the crop, and without positional value discussed, is the best player in this draft. Full stop.
- Isaiah Wynn, OG, Georgia: Too short to play tackle at the next level at 6-foot-3 with smaller hands, Wynn was the man that paved the way for two of the elite running back prospects available this year in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. In a zone blocking scheme that utilizes his athleticism, Wynn will be a Pro Bowl regular. With a patient coach, he’ll play in the NFL for a long time and be recognized as one of the greats.
3. Billy Price, C, Ohio State: If not for a torn pectoral suffered at this year’s Combine, there’s possibility that Price sneaks into the first round. Now he’ll be a fantastic value for a team looking for an immediate starter on Day 2 because of his injury. Seeing as how reports deem him ready to go by training camp, teams shouldn’t have pause in taking the former two-time All-American and college football’s top center.
4. Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP: A polished four-year starter, Hernandez is a road grater destined for stardom. He began to come into the forefront during this year’s Senior Bowl and hasn’t left the spotlight since. Whoever selects Hernandez is getting an agile mover with a strong anchor and the ideal to finish blocks on every opportunity. He’s almost as sure of a thing at guard as Nelson.
5. Austin Corbett, OG, Nevada: As a college left tackle and walk-on, Corbett is making the transition to the interior like many in this class, which reflects high level athleticism there for years to come. He might be a bit more of a developmental prospect initially, but should be on par soon after with polishing. Though, he’s a smart player that plays to his strengths despite raw deficiencies such as his core and lower body strength that need time to improve. This challenge presented in the NFL after the belief Corbett showed in school pales in comparison.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.