The Bears spent Labor Day weekend getting better.
Before the long weekend, the biggest question on the roster was the offensive line. Depth issues persist at most position groups, but the Bears were about to open up the season against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans with a rookie left guard, a journeyman center and a right guard dealing with a labrum injury.
That’s a bleak way to put it, but that must have been the same way Bears general manager Ryan Pace was looking at it, because he was willing to give a 30-year-old guard an average of $7.25 million a year for three years ($10 million total guaranteed).
And it was completely justified.
Truth be told, the Bears needed a center much more than they needed a left guard, but three-time Pro Bowlers who can still play don’t typically become available on Labor Day weekend. Especially one who was surprisingly cut by your division rival and knows the NFC North well.
So even though rookie Cody Whitehair looked more than capable of starting his first career game Sunday in Houston, Pace made the swift and decisive move to add Josh Sitton, forcing Whitehair to learn a new position in a hurry.
The addition of Sitton doesn’t come without questions, and the development of Whitehair is one of them. Center is the one position he didn’t play at Kansas State and other than limited practice reps and two rocky series in a preseason game, Whitehair hasn’t been playing much center for the Bears either.
And yet, Bears head coach John Fox oddly declared Monday: “I think maybe right now looking at it, I think it’s his best position.”
Maybe Fox means that center is the best position for Whitehair to play right now because he might be their best option. But based on what we saw in the preseason, Fox isn’t going to convince anyone that Whitehair is a better center than left guard.
It’s also asking a lot of a rookie to make the move to a crucial position during Week 1 of the regular season. The Bears should know after they did the same to Kyle Long last year. While Whitehair has had more work at center in practice than Long did at right tackle this time last year, it still seems hard to expect the rookie to make all the correct MIKE-points and snap every ball seamlessly by Sunday. Hroniss Grasu had some struggles in that area during his rookie year (remember the two-point conversion against the Broncos?), as did longtime veteran Matt Slauson when he slid over to center. It’s just not an easy position to play without experience, so it won’t be surprising if Whitehair is on the bench in Houston.
And that’s OK. Even if the journeyman center (Ted Larsen) and the right guard with the labrum injury (Long) are two-thirds of the starting interior offensive line, Sitton is an upgrade at left guard because of his experience and Whitehair is a tremendous upgrade as the swing guard who might also be good enough to start at center eventually.
Of course, this leads to another question: Does the Sitton signing indicate the Bears are worried Long’s shoulder might get worse? Maybe, but it’s important to remember that Pace and Fox likely had no idea Sitton was going to become available Saturday. They were probably looking for depth regardless, and a gift simply became available three hours north.
But Fox is always the first to say that you need to play to get experience. And despite the head coach saying Monday that center is Whitehair’s “best position,” the team still expects big things from Hroniss Grasu, who will be back next season after tearing his ACL. With that context, Whitehair still projects as the team’s longterm solution at left guard, so playing left guard this season probably would have been best in a perfect world.
But the NFL is not a perfect world and pigeon-holing offensive linemen into one position is usually not a good idea, especially when you don’t have good depth. Players get hurt and Whitehair could end up seeing plenty of playing time at all three interior positions by the time the season is over. That would be good experience too.
As for why the Packers let Sitton go, I was actually in Wisconsin for most of the weekend and the news was just as surprising up there. Money apparently played a part (he was due $6.85 million in 2016), but the Bears actually gave Sitton a raise, pitting a young general manager’s evaluation against one of the league’s top talent evaluators, Ted Thompson, who happens to have two Super Bowl rings.
“I just think maybe on their end, there’s a lot of things going into their decisions, things I might not be aware of,” Pace admitted.
Truth is, giving 30 year olds big money usually backfires in the NFL, and it goes against the Bears’ organizational philosophy since Pace took over as general manager. But timing matters, and given the state of the offensive line going into Week 1, this move was justifiable, even if it was risky. There have been reports of chronic back problems, but Sitton has started 110 out of 112 possible games since 2009, and availability is crucial in this league.
“This is a good player that’s getting released a week before the season,” Pace said. “I have a lot of respect for that organization. They’ve been a highly successful franchise, so everybody makes decisions internally for what they feel is best and I’m sure that’s what they did. But we did all our research and at the end of the day, we felt good about it.”
He should feel good about it. Since releasing Slauson after the NFL Draft, Pace insisted he felt good about his offensive line depth, but the reality was, it wasn’t there. With Sitton on board, the Bears are better equipped to protect Jay Cutler, better equipped to produce a solid running game and better equipped to withstand the rigors of a full NFL season.
Simply put, the Bears are just better.