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Hoge’s Bears Offseason Notebook No. 9: De La Puente Adds Depth, Options

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Brian de la Puente. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Brian de la Puente. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — It was one of the more impressive overhauls of an offensive line in recent memory, and Bears general manager Phil Emery did it in just one offseason.

With four new additions a year ago, Emery turned one the league’s worst offensive lines into one of the league’s most respectable lines very, very quickly.

But just in case you thought he was completely satisfied with his offensive line going into next season, think again. After all, when you give your quarterback $54 million in guaranteed money, it’s hard to ever feel satisfied with the men whose job it is to protect that investment.

And that’s why the Bears signed center Brian de la Puente on Sunday — a starting caliber center who adds needed depth to the line and gives the coaching staff some options.

It’s somewhat surprising the Bears were able to land de la Puente on a near minimum salary deal (his base salary is $730,001, according to NFLPA records) but it’s been clear that players around the league are buying what Emery and Marc Trestman are selling. And it certainly didn’t hurt that Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was de la Puente’s line coach in New Orleans when the offensive lineman went from an undrafted journeyman to a quality center on one of the league’s most potent offenses.

Listen: NFL Draft Podcast No. 1 With Adam Hoge & Dan Durkin

When the de la Puente signing was announced Sunday, fans immediately asked if he will beat out Roberto Garza at the center position, but that would surprise me. The Bears really like Garza as a leader on the offensive line, and he enters 2014 on a $1.5 million incentive-laden deal. At this point, it would be quite surprising if Garza wasn’t starting on the offensive line in Week 1.

That being said, the de la Puente signing is very Matt Slauson-eque. He’s a starting-caliber offensive lineman who seemingly deserved more money than he got, but for whatever reason, the market left him with few options. He now has a chance to prove himself on a one-year deal with the Bears, and I find it hard to believe a guy who started 44 games over the last three seasons would join a team just as a backup with little guarantee of playing time. Remember, the Bears’ five starting offensive linemen played every single snap last year until right tackle Jordan Mills suffered a foot injury in Week 17.

In a perfect world, the Bears probably hope de la Puente, still only 28 years old, is Garza’s replacement at center after next season. With a $730,001 base salary — just $1 more than the minimum for a player with his accrued NFL service — the Bears can extend de la Puente before the start of the 2015 league year. If it had been $1 less (with no more than $65,000 in bonuses) the Bears would have saved themselves $160,000 in cap savings with a minimum salary benefit deal, but they wouldn’t have been able to extend de la Puente to anything more than another one-year minimum salary benefit deal until next March.

So where does de la Puente’s playing time come in? Emery has made it clear this offseason that he wants to create more competition at every position, and while I don’t believe there’s going to be an open competition between de la Puente and Garza at center, this signing does give the coaching staff some options.

The most obvious ways in which de la Puente gets playing time is if either Garza, Slauson or Kyle Long go down with injuries. De la Puente has experience at guard, so he could fill in there, too.

However, here’s a more interesting scenario: It’s been widely assumed that Long will one day end up as either the left or right tackle for the Bears. There’s been no indication that he’ll make that switch this season, but if there was one weak link to the offensive line last year, it was Mills at right tackle. It’s possible the Bears experiment with the line a little bit during the offseason and training camp and depending on evaluations/injuries, it’s conceivable de la Puente could start at center, with Garza moving to right guard and Long at right tackle.

I wouldn’t bet on that happening, though.

While Mills wasn’t perfect last year, he was a fifth-round rookie who more than held his own at right tackle and should only improve going forward. He has great work ethic and is his own harshest critic. The foot surgery may delay his progress a little bit, but I definitely don’t think this de la Puente signing means Long’s move to tackle is imminent. He was great at guard last year, and there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken.

It’s certainly good to have these options. Outside of Jay Cutler, the Bears’ offense was remarkably healthy last season, and you can’t bank on having five offensive linemen start all 16 games in a season. The signing of de la Puente certainly means I’ll be watching the offensive line rotations closely during training camp, but it also doesn’t mean you should expect to see a different starting five when the season starts.

Tweetbag

Given all the additions the Bears have made through free agency, one could definitely make the case that the Bears should be No. 1 in the NFC North right now. However, I’m not going to do that, for one reason: Aaron Rodgers.

While the Bears finished second in the league in scoring offense last season and the Packers eighth, the difference between the two teams was only 1.7 points. And the Packers still finished ahead of the Bears in total offense, despite Rodgers missing seven games with a broken collarbone. The Bears offense should be even better in Year 2 under Marc Trestman, but Rodgers is still the best player in the division and gives Green Bay the edge until proved otherwise.

The “going into the draft” part of your question is an important stipulation. The Bears might look deeper than the Packers right now on paper, but we all know Ted Thompson does the majority of his damage in the draft, not free agency.

I definitely think the Bears are closing the gap between them and Green Bay, but I still have to give the edge to Rodgers right now. Ranking the NFC North today, I’d go: 1. Packers, 2. Bears, 3. Lions, 4. Vikings.

Nate Collins is sort of a forgotten player on this defense, and fans need to remember that he was playing at a pretty high level before tearing his ACL last season. In fact, I thought he was outplaying Henry Melton. Stephen Paea and Jeremiah Ratliff are penciled in as the starting defensive tackles right now, and I expect the Bears to add at least one more through the draft, but Collins is an underrated player who will certainly be in the rotation next season. If he stays healthy, expect to see a lot of him.

From everything I’ve been told, the Bears like David Bass. He was a raw, seventh-round rookie last season who showed decent potential, and right now he’s in the most important days of his NFL career. The jump players make between their first and second years in the league is significant, and we’ll know relatively quickly this fall how Bass projects as an NFL defensive end. I think a roster spot is his to lose right now, and he’ll be given every opportunity to stay in the rotation this season despite the additions of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Idonije.

It’s simple: You don’t cut players until you absolutely need to. Eric Weems has been a solid special teamer for the Bears and if there’s a way to keep him, you keep him. It was reported that he declined a pay cut, and that usually leads to a release down the road, but you don’t do it unless you have to. The Bears would save $1.1 million by cutting Weems, so it still appears likely, but the special teams need to improve next season. So if there’s a way to keep him on that unit, the Bears will do it.

College Prospect Of The Week

QB Zach Mettenberger – LSU

Everyone wants to know if the Bears will draft a quarterback, and every time Emery adds to a position of need through free agency, the possibility of adding a quarterback in the draft grows. For example, with the addition of de la Puente, center is no longer a great position of need this season.

Zach Mettenberger is coming off a torn ACL, but he’s scheduled to hold his pro day on Wednesday, and NFL teams will be eager to see what he looks like after the injury. At 6-foot-5, 224 pounds, Mettenberger has tremendous size at the position. He also has a very strong arm and can make all the throws at the next level. My concern is that he has a slower release and reaches back more than usual. That, along with limited escapability, leads to more sacks. He needs to be in an offense with shorter drops and good protection, which makes the Bears a potential fit. Accuracy is an issue, and he often forces his receivers to adjust, so getting him with the right coach is key.

Mettenberger is a riskier pick with a wider range of possibilities, but he can develop into a starter if put in the right situation. If Trestman sees potential in Mettenberger, the quarterback would be worth a fourth-round or even a third-round pick. The question is, will Mettenberger still be around that late? With a solid pro day and private workouts, the former LSU quarterback could move up significantly.

Extra Point

As I reported last week, the Bears will work out former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch on April 18. Lynch said the workout is “strictly for quarterback,” although it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears put him through some other drills.

It’s important to note that this is a private workout, which means it can’t take place at Halas Hall. That means it doesn’t count as one of the 30 allowed visits, although it might not have counted anyway because local prospects don’t count against the 30. That rule is loosely defined, and it’s unclear if DeKalb counts as part of the Bears’ local metropolitan area.

If it is strictly a workout at quarterback, my guess is that Lynch is on the Bears’ radar as a potential undrafted free agent. If he goes undrafted, why not bring him in and try to find a spot for him on the team? Lynch has proved he’s dangerous with the football in his hands, and if it doesn’t work out on offense, I believe he has potential at safety, too.

That being said, I’d be surprised if Lynch goes undrafted. I think a team will take a chance on him with a draft pick for the same reasons I just laid out. Will that team be the Bears? It would surprise me if it is. The Bears only have seven picks, and there are plenty of other needs. If they use a pick on a quarterback, it will likely be on someone who fits the Bears’ offense better than Lynch does.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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