By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) During his first three years as Bears general manager, Ryan Pace has managed to put a pretty good offensive line together on paper.
Pace inherited Kyle Long, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and Charles Leno Jr., a 2014 seventh-round pick who became a steady presence at left tackle. Both players were given contract extensions that run through 2021.
Veteran guard Josh Sitton landed with the Bears after his surprising release by the Packers in 2016, which in turn moved second-round pick Cody Whitehair over to center. Bobby Massie, a veteran signed in free agency March 2016, has been fairly consistent at right tackle.
It all looked good on paper — even to the extent that the same group returned in 2017 — until injuries took their toll. Long’s difficult recovery from ankle surgery last offseason dragged into the first two weeks of the regular season, then he was shut down after starting nine games as his torn labrum suffered in August 2016 lingered.
Long underwent a procedure for a herniated disk in his neck in December, then had his shoulder repaired in late January. He’s eager to begin working back to full health with surgeries complete and rehab ahead.
Meanwhile, the status of Sitton lingers for the Bears, who must decide on his team option by March 9. Sitton missed three games each of the last two seasons but was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2016. An ankle injury ended his 2017 campaign early.
How the Bears offensive line forms ahead depends on the health of Long and a decision on Sitton.
Set to return: Charles Leno, 26; Cody Whitehair, 25; Kyle Long, 29; Bobby Massie, 28; Hroniss Grasu, 26; Eric Kush, 28; Bradley Sowell, 28; Jordan Morgan, 25; 28; Cameron Lee, 24; Brandon Greene, 23
Questionable to return: Josh Sitton, 31 (team option); Tom Compton, 28 (UFA)
Provided good health, the Bears shouldn’t see major change on their offensive line for 2018. Leno was awarded the long-term deal as the team’s left tackle, Whitehair has been a steady presence in the interior, Long hopes to be back at full form for the season and Massie has played well at right tackle.
The Bears also have quality depth with the likes of Kush, Sowell and Grasu and young players developing in Morgan, Lee and Greene.
For now, the only lingering question is whether the Bears will opt to retain Sitton or let him walk into free agency. He’s due $7.4 million in base salary with the team option and turns 32 in June. However, it remains to be seen whether the Bears would be able to find a better fit than Sitton.
Andrew Norwell, 26, leads the group of guards slated to hit the open market, though he will certainly be in demand. Jack Mewhort, 27, has been strong when healthy, but his injury history is concerning. Justin Pugh, 28, should also draw some attention on the open market. The other options would be considered a step back from Sitton, even at a cheaper deal.
Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson may be the best offensive lineman available in this NFL Draft class, but he may not be on the board when the Bears are set to pick eighth overall.
The Bears did score big this offseason with the hire of offensive lineman coach Harry Hiestand from Notre Dame. In Hiestand, they added a coach considered to be one of the best at his job in football, as he has a strong track record of developing young linemen.