Position preview: Bears could fill right-tackle opening in first round
The Bears haven’t drafted an OT in the first five rounds in Ryan Pace’s six seasons as GM. But after releasing veteran Bobby Massie, the opportunity is there in a deep tackle class for an upgrade.
Part 3 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.
A revamped line helped spark the Bears’ offensive resurgence late in the 2020 season. When they benched Rashaad Coward and inserted Sam Mustipher into the lineup against the Packers in Week 12, it looked as though the linefinally had found the elusive chemistry and communication every offense craves.
Coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace gave due credit to the new combination after the Bears averaged 396.8 yards and 34.5 offensive points in four December games with Charles Leno Jr. at left tackle, Cody Whitehair at left guard, Mustipher at center, Alex Bars at right guard and Germain Ifedi at right tackle.
But even they seemed to know that hadn’t quite solved their problem. That offensive output came against four of the six worst defenses in the NFL: the Lions (32nd), Texans (30th), Vikings (27th) and Jaguars (31st). The offense returned to earth against the Packers in Week 17 and the Saints in the playoffs.
With guard James Daniels — arguably their best offensive lineman — expected to return in 2021 after missing the last 11 games because of a torn chest muscle, the interior of the line should be even stronger. But the Bears are likely to be looking for an upgrade at tackle after releasing starter Bobby Massie, who missed the last eight games last season with a knee injury.
In fact, with Massie gone, a first-round draft pick likely would be the odds-on favorite to start in 2021. The current candidates are Ifedi, who started the last seven games at right tackle in 2020; free agent Elijah Wilkinson, who started seven games for the Broncos last season but is likely a swing tackle for depth; and Lachavious Simmons, a seventh-round draft pick in 2020 who was activated from the practice squad at midseason but didn’t play in a game.
Pace gave proper credit to the line in his postseason news conference. And while he rarely, if ever, tips his hand, he seemed to indicate he is looking for more. And that almost certainly would be at tackle.
‘‘The offensive line is something we’re always going to look at, and there’s a variety of ways we can continue to improve it,’’ Pace said. ‘‘Every team is going to have these same cap restraints as we head into [the offseason]. And it’s on us . . . to make the right decisions, get creative when we have to, make hard decisions when we have to and make sure we shore up that position in every way we can.’’
With five quarterbacks possibly gone in the first nine picks, the Bears are more likely to try to find that upgrade at offensive tackle at No. 20. Though Pace drafted Whitehair (56th overall in 2016) and Daniels (39th overall in 2018) in the second round, he hasn’t taken a tackle higher than the sixth round in his six years as GM. That was TCU’s Tayo Fabuluje (183rd overall in 2016).
Grading the Bears’ need: High. The Bears have quality interior pieces with Daniels and Whitehair and Leno is better than his critics think — especially if he’s the second-best tackle on the line. But there’s the rub — and the Bears could use a first-round talent on the other side.
On the roster: OT Charles Leno, Jr., G/C Cody Whitehair, G/C James Daniels, C Sam Mustipher, G/T Germain Ifedi, G/T Alex Bars, G/T Elijah Wilkinson, G Arlington Hambright, T Lachavious Simmons, T Badara Traore, G Dieter Eiselen.
The five best prospects: Oregon OT Penei Sewell, Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater, Virginia Tech OT Christian Darrisaw, USC OT Alijah Vera-Tucker and Oklahoma State OT Teven Jenkins.
Keep an eye on: Northern Iowa tackle Spencer Brown. The 6-8 1/2, 314-pound Brown is a late-bloomer who played for an FCS program and did not play last season after Northern Iowa moved its season to the spring. But rather than transfer to a power-five school and play in the fall, he opted to stay at Northern Iowa out of loyalty to his teammates and the program that developed him. That’s a character trait of selflessness and commitment-to-team that is particularly valued on the offensive line.
Close to home: Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater opted out of the 2020 season, but solidified his draft stock with a pro day performance that impressed draft analysts and probably pro scouts. The Sugar Land, Texas native — the son of former NBA forward Reggie Slater — is athletic, versatile, technically sound and has a bit of nasty in him.