Part 5 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.
The worst thing the Bears could do to try to fix an offensive line that hasn’t played up to its price tag is throw more money at it. They must find the solution in the draft.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace thought he had that unit nailed down going into the 2019 season. His plan quickly unraveled.
Franchise mainstay Kyle Long lasted four games before heading toward retirement; left tackle Charles Leno talked about doing “some real deep searching” about what was wrong with his play by early October; the flipping of Cody Whitehair and James Daniels flopped; and right tackle Bobby Massie missed six games due to injury.
There was plenty wrong with a Bears offense that finished 29th in points last season, so it’s not fair to blame the line above all else, but it is a key issue they need to address. And while signing former Seahawks first-round pick Germain Ifedi to vie for the right guard spot is a good start, it’s not enough.
The Bears don’t have a ton of needs, but the ones they have are glaring: quarterback, offensive line tight end — in that order. It is imperative that they get a prospect who could start right away, and the best path to ensure that is to use one of their second-round picks.
Those are precious for the Bears this year, because after those selections at Nos. 43 and 50 overall, they don’t pick again until the fifth round at No. 163. If one of those goes to a potential quarterback of the future, the other needs to go to an offensive tackle of the present.
It’s fairly common for teams to draft an offensive tackle even if they already have starters in place and play him at guard his rookie season. The Bears could do that to heighten the competition at guard in 2020, or they could keep the rookie at tackle and have him ready to jump in if Leno or Massie struggles.
If the Bears are shopping offensive tackles at No. 43, they’ll likely be looking at the sixth- to ninth-best prospects. That’s not bad. Southern California’s Austin Jackson, Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland, Connecticut’s Matt Peart and TCU’s Lucas Niang could all be on the board at that time. Those players are projected to be borderline starters within two seasons.
The challenge for Pace, of course, is to pick the right one. He has taken only four offensive linemen since becoming GM in 2015: Hroniss Grasu, Whitehair, Jordan Morgan and Daniels.
Grasu, a third-rounder, was cut after three seasons. Morgan, a fifth-rounder, never played an NFL snap. The Bears can’t afford a dud like that this year. They need someone who will provide instant and long-term help.
Grading the Bears’ need: High. Even if the Bears upgraded at quarterback thanks to the Nick Foles trade and upgraded at tight end thanks to Trey Burton getting healthy, they’re not going anywhere offensively without better offensive line play.
On the roster: LT Charles Leno, LG James Daniels, C Cody Whitehair, RG Rashaad Coward, RT Bobby Massie, G/T Germain Ifedi, G/C Corey Levin, T/G Alex Bars, T Dino Boyd, C/G Sam Mustipher
The five best prospects: Louisville OT Mekhi Becton, Alabama OT Jedrick Wills, Iowa OT Tristan Wirfs, Houston OT Josh Jones, Georgia OT Andrew Thomas
Keep an eye on: Southern California’s Austin Jackson. He’s widely thought to be going late in the first round or early in the second, so it could be a nail biter for the Bears if they’re hoping to land him at No. 43. ESPN’s Mel Kiper is more bullish on Jackson than most and slotted him at No. 25 to the Vikings. Jackson is 6-foot-5, 322 and was arguably the best offensive lineman in the Pac-12 last season.
Close to home: Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs is one of most athletic offensive tackles in the draft and was an early entrant to the draft after being voted the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten last season. As a possible top-10 pick, the kid who grew up in a trailer park is about to become a millionaire. It’s easy to root for him.