Back when he was originally signed in 2016, Chicago Bears right tackle Bobby Massie was rightfully seen as a short term stop gap in most circles. The 28-year-old veteran, 26 at the time, had enough of a four-year sample size with the Cardinals to discern that he wasn’t going to be a long term answer for the Bears as a book end. That they were going to eventually sign or develop someone to play in place of Massie.
Two years later, with beyond thin tackle depth in general, Massie gets to play out his original three-year contract as a starter. And, more importantly, there’s no immediate Bears player chomping at the bit to supplant him.
You can only fill so many holes in one off-season, and boy did the Bears and general manager Ryan Pace accomplish that in 2018. Chicago completely overhauled it’s wide receiving position, bolstered it’s tight end slot, and went out and acquired defensive depth where necessary. There’s only so much cap space, and there’s only so many players to pick from in free agency and the draft.
But one would think a priority would have been to address the status of one of the men that regularly tasked with protecting Mitchell Trubisky. After the entire off-season played out in a predictable fashion to put Trubisky in the most optimal position to succeed in the form of reliable offensive weapons and a quality coaching staff: the Bears left one spot open with Massie.
Which is disconcerting in the fact that many NFL teams have begun to believe it’s ideal to possess two solid pass protecting tackles. It was once widely accepted that a team’s left tackle was the athlete with terrific feet who protected the quarterback and regularly went against a defense’s best pass rusher. While the right tackle was the mauler in the running game rarely asked to do anything but create space for tail backs.
This old school approach is currently how the Bears are structured at offensive tackle as Charles Leno Jr. is fleet-footed and generally solid as a pass protector, while Massie adequately run blocks but is abused against edge rushers with any hint of a burst he can’t handle. In a league where there is an abundance of stellar and quick pass rushers off the edge that can move across over the line of scrimmage, this designation has been rightfully muddled, and the Bears haven’t caught up.
Let’s examine the Bears’ decision to move forward with Massie as the starter in 2018, whether he can stick around longer than originally expected, and what possible options Chicago should have next year to remedy this looming roster hole.
Why Massie gets another opportunity
If you look closely at Massie’s contract structure of three years and $18 million, only $6.5 million was guaranteed. This meant that even the Bears put in a failsafe of potentially cutting Massie after one year with minimal dead space, as they weren’t completely sold on his future. The way circumstances have played out in the past two seasons necessitated they only keep Massie because Pace and company never found a viable replacement.
That’s what this decision amounts to: Massie sticks in 2018, not because he’s a virtuouso Hall of Fame level tackle, but because he does his job, and the Bears quite literally don’t have any other options.
Could Chicago have potentially drafted a tackle at any point in either the 2016 or 2017 NFL Draft? Sure. But the past two classes haven’t been known for their offensive tackle proficiency. Unless you believe in the Dolphins’ Laremy Tunsil. The Bears didn’t, and needed an edge rusher first, so they drafted Leonard Floyd.
Same goes for 2017 and guys like Ryan Ramczyk (No. 32 overall) with the Saints. The Bears needed a quarterback first, and their picks at No. 3 overall (eventually No. 2), didn’t warrant talents like Ramczyk being reached for that high. Nor, did the Bears need a tackle as much as a quarterback.
When you examine free agency, it tells a similar story, as the only guy the Bears could’ve rightfully pursued was the Giants’ Nate Solder this past March. Solder, however, is now the NFL’s highest paid tackle after his free agent deal. Most good tackles don’t hit free agency without a huge payday at a premium position. That isn’t money the Bears were going to pay for someone whose play doesn’t nearly match up his pay.
So, by fate and happen stance, Massie has gotten to keep his job, because there hasn’t been any way to admirably fill in for him. And, since he hasn’t been a complete turnstile, the Bears have been okay with him starting: especially considering they weren’t anything close to contenders in the past few years.
What’s in store for the future
Where Massie goes after 2018 is a different story than the Bears being satisfied with living his occasional missteps in pass protection. Because if Chicago truly wants to build a consistent, high-powered offense, and have Trubisky be as comfortable as possible in the pocket: then there’s no way they can justify keeping Massie beyond the upcoming season.
Yes, no offensive unit is perfect. Every NFL offensive coordinator designs a game plan that takes advantage of what his players do well, and puts in backup plans to protect his contributors that are less than up to the task.
On the Bears’ offense, that’s Massie in passing situations, like any long third down. Routinely, Chicago has had to have someone chip over (such as a running back), or line up another tight end besides Massie on obvious passing downs. This is a common problem many organizations face with their offensive line, but it doesn’t make it any more conducive to continually move forward with. Some of the best attacks in football like the Patriots, Eagles, and now even Jaguars, have little to no questions regarding their offensive front for a reason (Philadelphia had the NFL’s best offensive line in 2017).
It’s the contrast between teams struggling on the playoff bubble in December, and those locking in bye weeks in the early winter. These offenses simply have other immediate problems to worry about, instead of constantly giving help to one offensive lineman, and in turn throwing the whole scheme out of whack in overcompensation.
Considering that while Leno could reasonably be seen as starter on a contending offense, that also puts a lot of pressure on the Bears’ blind side protector to not make a mistake when he’s left on an island. If Chicago is doing everything it can to support Massie, and Leno fails, then the whole construct falls apart. If Chicago is offering Massie a helping hand, and that takes away what would’ve been a better designed route tree or protection call, then that mitigates the effectiveness of what the Bears’ offense could be.
If the Bears really want to take the next step with a modern 21st century offense they’ve never had, then they can’t have any question marks in pass protection like Massie. They can’t be constantly worrying about whether he’ll hold up while attempting to convert third downs.
There are too many dominant pass rushers and smart defensive coordinators that salivate at the opportunity to take advantage of Massie’s deficiencies, as solid as he is elsewhere. One more season of Massie failing to use his kick step quickly enough is okay. Anything after that is self-sabotage.
Where to find the Bears’ next right tackle
Fortunately, for the Bears’ sake, what will soon be an immediate need on their offensive line should have a myriad of options to choose from in next April’s draft. Let’s assume that the Bears select anywhere from No. 14 to No. 22 overall, for posterity’s sake. There they can certainly find a young man to develop under the prospects of guru Harry Hiestand: who is renown for his ability to coach up the big boys up front.
Guys such as Mississippi’s Greg Little, Washington’s Trey Adams, and Alabama’s Jonah Williams are all worthy of a Bears’ selection in either of the first two rounds. The Bears reasonably can’t go wrong with any of these choices.
Little is someone that doesn’t have a bevy of starting experience, but may possess the most upside of anyone else in the draft class. He’s someone that’s incredibly malleable and would benefit from the tutelage of Hiestand. Adams is gong to be seen as one of the top athletes at his position, regardless of a torn ACL suffered last October. This is a player you can plug and play, provided he recovers well from his injury. Meanwhile, Williams was the replacement for the Jaguars’ Cam Robinson, who was drafted in 2016, and Alabama hasn’t missed a beat in the last two years.
The best part about this trio is that each have primarily featured on the blind side, meaning their transition to the right should be seamless with a proper amount of coaching. Meaning, too, they can handle top pass rushers, as their college offensive coordinators mandate from them consistently. You can replace Massie properly given what the Bears have in place coaching wise, and with their offense’s future still being molded, as next year’s tackle pool is formidable.
Moving forward, the Bears are going to be able to survive with Massie for the duration of the 2018 season. That doesn’t mean it isn’t time to start thinking about life without their eventual three-year “stop gap.” The success and viability of their offense, and their quarterback, depends on it.
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.