Without a wheelbarrow of cash, Ryan Pace has been a prudent general manager through the first few days of free agency. Though tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive end Robert Quinn and quarterback Nick Foles all arrive with caveats of varying degrees, each upgrades a key position on paper.
Now Pace has to be a magician and upgrade the offensive line with limited salary-cap space and little wiggle room.
The O-line ranked right up there with Mitch Trubisky’s regression and the dearth of tight ends as a culprit for the Bears’ demise last season — and some thought it should have been No. 1. Unless you have a well-oiled machine run by a world-class quarterback, you have to run the ball in Matt Nagy’s offense.
The Bears were 27th in the NFL in rushing yards and 29th in rushing yards per carry last season. Trubisky’s diminished run production was a factor — from 421 yards and 6.2 per carry in 2018 to 193 yards and 4.0 per carry in 2019. But from the opening game — when Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark beat center James Daniels to tackle Cordarrelle Patterson for a two-yard loss on a key third-and-one in a 10-3 loss to Green Bay at Soldier Field — substandard line play was problematic.
In retrospect, that seemed to throw Nagy off his play-calling game. He was reluctant to run the ball — including a franchise-low seven rushes (for 17 net yards) against the Saints in Week 7. Only by resorting to the I-formation — not normally a part of his offense — did the Bears ever establish any kind of groove in the run game.
Nagy deferred to assistant coach Harry Hiestand on all things in the run game, but he was well aware of deficiencies in the run-blocking. When I tried to soften a critical question about the offensive line in Week 4 — “It’s hard to evaluate an offensive line, but . . .” — Nagy was having none of it.
“It is?” he countered. “I know when they’re playing well and when they’re not playing well. I know when they’re good and when they’re not good.”
Nagy made that point even clearer when he fired the well-respected Hiestand after the season and replaced him with Juan Castillo, who had been fired by the Bills the previous season.
Nagy and Pace are hoping a new voice will make a difference because there isn’t a lot of room for personnel changes. Daniels at left guard and Cody Whitehair at center are building blocks on the interior line. With expensive “dead-cap” hits, tackles Charles Leno ($7.4 million) and Bobby Massie ($10.8 million) likely are locked into their starting roles.
That leaves Kyle Long’s old right guard spot as the only obvious room for an upgrade. Former defensive tackle Rashaad Coward was promising enough in 10 starts in place of Long to get a shot at keeping the job. Without a no-brainer upgrade available in free agency, Coward figures to battle intriguing second-year guard Alex Bars in training camp.
So, barring a surprise move, the Bears are likely to go to camp with the same offensive line that played most of the 2019 season. Eventually they’ll have to upgrade with a first-round tackle or two. But for now, growth from within seems like their best hope.