The Chicago Bears are kind of following the path I figured they’d take at offensive tackle so far this offseason. With two veteran priced starters in a cap strapped season I knew one would be cut, and the Bears parted ways with starting right tackle Bobby Massie.
That move saved the Bears around $5 million in cap space, but they ended up giving most of that savings to Germain Ifedi, who was playing on a 1-year, $1.0475 million deal in 2020. After Ifedi started every game for the Bears last year, 10 at right guard then their last 7 at right tackle, the Bears rewarded him with a 1-year, $4.25 million contract for the 2021 season.
While not crazy money, it is low end starting money for right tackle (20th highest by average), so the Bears may be content if they head into the year with Ifedi starting at that spot for them.
I would really hope there is a first or second round prospect drafted to compete with him, because I’m not sold that the Ifedi we saw in pass protection to end the year is the same guy we’ll see moving forward. He struggled quite a bit at right tackle during his first four years with the Seattle Seahawks, and while he played decent down the stretch for the Bears, I think he’s a better fit at right guard.
Maybe Chicago o-line coach Juan Castillo found a glitch in Ifedi’s game and the soon to be 27-year old is ready to thrive at tackle, but I’ll believe that when I see it.
Over at left tackle it seems like they’ll roll into the 2021 season with the same guy that has started the last 93 games for them, Charles Leno Jr. I know this infuriates some fans, but most people agree with former Bears All-Pro center Olin Kreutz, noted offensive line analyst Brandon Thorn, and The Athletic’s Robert Mays, when they all say that Leno is an okay football player. Not the best, certainly not the worst, but perfectly fine. The advanced stats all show him to be an average left tackle, which is about where his salary puts him, but he’s not so good to where you don’t look for an upgrade if one presents itself.
I’m alright with the apparent decision to stay with Leno, but with him heading into the final year of his contract (albeit, there were 2 void years added), and at a soon to be 30-years old, the Bears could be, and should be, angling for his replacement.
The Bears don’t really have an established swing tackle on the roster right now, unless you’re high on free agent pick up Elijah Wilkinson who signed a one-year deal for less than a million dollars. He has 26 starts the last three years with the Broncos at both guard and tackle, and I think he’s trying to take the same path that Ifedi did by proving himself for a season and earning a bigger deal in year two.
I’ll believe that when I see it too.
Our friends over at Mile High Report, the SB Nation site that covers the Denver Broncos, said that Wilkinson was a better guard than tackle, and that he’ll “always be limited by slow feet.” Those slow feet at right tackle probably contributed to the 23.5 sacks he allowed since 2019 according to Pro Football Focus.
As a reserve I do think he’ll be serviceable in a pinch, but if he’s forced into any long term action the Bears could be in trouble. Some of the anti-Leno crowd thought that Wilkinson was added to be Chicago’s new left tackle, but for a little perspective, I had Leno down for 8.5 sacks allowed the last two seasons.
Injuries riddled the Bears o-line a year ago, and right now Wilkinson seems like he’ll be the first o-lineman off the bench, which is an upgrade over what they trotted out in 2020, but honestly that’s not saying much.
Last year’s seventh-round rookie Lachavious Simmons and UDFA Badara Traore will both be in the mix to win a reserve spot at tackle this offseason, but those guys seem to project to the practice squad.
Head coach Matt Nagy mentioned that guard Alex Bars is a guy they’ll work in at right tackle this offseason, and his ability to also play center makes him a valuable reserve, but his future is most likely at guard.
So what is the Bears’ plan at offensive tackle?
It’s time the Bears invest some draft capitol in the position, because when the best tackle on your roster is average at best, and when you haven’t spent better than a day three pick on the position since 2011, it’s time to find someone you can develop.
I think drafting a tackle in the first or second round would be a smart thing to do this year and there are several that could be available. Guys like Christian Darrisaw from Virginia Tech, USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, Teven Jenkins from Oklahoma State, Jalen Mayfield from Michigan, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, Dillon Radunz from North Dakota State, and Texas’ Samuel Cosmi just to name a few. And while some of those guys could project to guard in the NFL, all have tackle experience and would be welcome additions to Chicago’s o-line room.
Between Leno and Ifedi, Leno is the more established of the two, so depending on the prospect drafted, the Bears could have a rookie compete at right tackle for the 2021 season, then have him flip over to the left side in 2022 if Leno isn’t retained. I’d actually like to see the Bears add a couple tackles in this draft, because the current crop of reserves on their roster aren’t very awe inspiring.
Offensive tackle is a position you need to keep drafting, but the Bears have only drafted two in the last decade that weren’t 7th-rounders, Gabe Carimi in the first-round of the 2011 draft and Jordan Mills in the fifth-round of 2013. Until the franchise has legit bookend tackles, they need to start spending some day one or day two picks on the position.