Right guard is the easiest position to play on the offensive line, and Kyle Long is the Bears' best offensive lineman. It would be ludicrous to waste his talent at right guard. The Bears said they planned to move him to tackle at some point. If they made the change now, they could start Brian de la Puente at center (where he has played before and is better than Roberto Garza), move Garza to right guard and play Long and Jermon Bushrod at tackle. The Bears like Garza at center for his leadership, but it would be foolish to leave him there for that reason alone. He still could be a leader from the right guard position where he's physically much better suited. I also think that in saying the Bears should leave well enough alone, you overstated the success of the offensive line last season. They were terrible in short-yardage runs, including goal line, and the only reason Jay Cutler wasn't sacked more often is that he has good vision, quick feet and is very good at avoiding sacks. Because the Bears’ line was so horrible the previous two or three years, they seemed much better than they really were last season, which was about average. A few changes could propel the line into being really good, which the Bears will need to be in order to compete for the Super Bowl as an offensive-minded team. -- Jeff H., Berkeley, Calif., from email
You’ve got a lot going on here and I will try to cover it all. First, I don’t know that right guard is necessarily the “easiest” position to play on the line. Painting with a very broad brush, a lot of times the left guard is viewed as the more athletic of the guard positions with more of a mauler being at right guard. Not every team approaches it that way and the Bears don’t with Matt Slauson on the left side and Long at right guard. Instead of talking about which position is easiest, it’s probably a good idea to talk about positional values. Using the draft as a guide, it’s clear teams put the highest premium on tackles, then guards. Yes, elite centers can get paid and the Browns bucked up big for Alex Mack this offseason, matching a $42 million, five-year offer sheet he signed with the Jaguars. But centers have the lowest value among linemen.
I’m not sure the Bears would classify Long as their best offensive lineman after just one season but he probably has the most upside. I also think you probably overrate de la Puente. He was a free agent and got little to no interest as a starter on the open market with the Saints actively working to replace him. That is what led him to take a backup job with the Bears on a one-year deal. Also, the Bears never have stated publicly that they plan to play Long at tackle. They’ve said it’s not out of the question he could be moved at some point. No argument from me on the team’s struggles in short yardage last year but we’re veering into a different topic now. I also think it’s a mistake to give Cutler too much credit for avoiding sacks last season when he didn’t effectively get rid of the ball in previous years to avoid some sacks.
I broached some of these topics with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who is in charge of the offensive line. One thing you omitted was the team’s belief in being strong from guard to guard, something Kromer has talked at length about and something the Saints practiced when he was in New Orleans. It’s a reason to keep Long at guard.
“I’m not going to change my thinking,” Kromer said. “We believe that the guards are very important in our football and there are others that believe that everybody should move to tackle. We just feel it is best to keep Kyle at guard. That is what we are going to continue to do. (Making a change) is not a thought this year.”
When it comes to potentially making changes in the starting five, Kromer also doesn’t see anything happening.
“Our starting five would have to do something extremely bad to not play again and be the starting five,” he said. “Although we’re not setting any depth charts right now, really it is the battle for the backups and they are important.”
Could Long change positions in 2015? Sure. That is a possibility. But it’s not something the Bears are planning for at this point and if right tackle Jordan Mills takes steps forward in his second season like the club expects, the chances of a switch will be minimized.
What did we learn, if anything, from the OTA's? – Tony C., Highland Park, from email
The Bears had a drama-free offseason when you consider there were no players making public stands for contracts or players skipping voluntary workouts because they were upset. What we saw was pretty much what was expected. The offense, coming off a dynamic breakout season, looked sharp at times. The defense has questions that will continue into training camp and preseason. By my count there are three starting jobs up for grabs right now on defense and possibly more. Free safety, middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker remain undecided. Saying that, I still believe D.J. Williams is the player to beat out in the middle and Marc Trestman called him the “lead dog” there. It looks like Ryan Mundy will be the starting strong safety. But the Bears are still aging on that side of the ball. Up front, Jared Allen and Jeremiah Ratliff are on the back nine of their careers. How long will cornerback Charles Tillman hold up and how will first-round pick Kyle Fuller fare? There is a lot up in the air on the defensive side of the ball.
In your recent mailbag you mentioned the term “blues” in regards to scouts' assessment of elite talents that are the difference-makers in winning games. In your estimation, who are the Bears’ "blue" players and do they have enough to be a playoff team? – Patrick S., Fort Wayne, Ind., from email
Good question. A lot of people have their own twist on player evaluations but generally speaking when scouts talk about blues, they’re talking about the absolute best in the NFL. Most will tell you a blue is the top 10 percent in the NFL at their position. That means a list of three quarterbacks, three running backs, six wide receivers and so on. Some might expand their list of blues to a top five at each position but the point is it is the best of the best. The next tier of players are red and they are considered excellent at their position and capable of starting for playoff-caliber teams. Purple comes next and those are very good starters. Green is used for average players or very good backups. Yellow is used for backups.
When you look at the Bears’ roster, there is one consensus blue player – wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Running back Matt Forte is probably red in the estimation of most scouts. After one breakout season, I would venture to say wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is red. Quarterback Jay Cutler probably would fall in the purple category and that is where the Bears probably have a pretty good collection of players, including left tackle Jermon Bushrod, right guard Kyle Long, tight end Martellus Bennett, defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen. That is probably where you would find linebacker Lance Briggs at this point. Not too long ago, Briggs was probably blue on most boards for 4-3 defenses. Cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman are likely purple as well. Kicker Robbie Gould could be considered a blue or red as well. Do the Bears have the color coding necessary to reach the playoffs? No question about it.
Taking a quick look around the NFC North, I would say the Lions have two blues in wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Packers probably have three with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, guard Josh Sitton and outside linebacker Clay Matthews. They also have an ascending running back in Eddie Lacy and a pretty good corps of wide receivers. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is a blue and some rank right tackle Phil Loadholt highly.
Why is Marquess Wilson projected to be the third or nickel wide receiver? In general, this position is supposed to have “quicks” rather than speed, show a willingness and ability to work over the middle and be a sure-handed receiver in traffic. Wilson was a track star and is supposed to have good straight-ahead speed and jump-ball ability but is not noted as using his hands well or ability to escape the jam or for his reliable hands. It seems he projects more as a split end than an over the middle receiver, though we obviously haven't seen what he can do at the NFL level yet. Say what you will about Earl Bennett's health issues (which certainly existed) but he was generally sure-handed and was much more in the mold of a traditional nickel receiver. – Mike R., from email
Wilson might have more quicks than you think. There is a common belief out there that he is a speedster but that was not the case at the Scouting Combine in 2013 when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds. Not a bad time at all but that ranked in the middle of the pack. However, Wilson had one of the top three-cone drill times in 6.65 seconds and that is an example of the “quicks” he has with the ability to sink his hips and get in and out of breaks. He’s more elusive at the line of scrimmage than you would think and that is something wide receivers coach Mike Groh talked about last year when I asked him about Wilson’s weight and strength deficiency. As Groh said, you didn’t see Wilson getting knocked off his route a lot because defensive backs couldn’t get their hands on him. I don’t know that we have enough evidence yet to make a proper judgment on Wilson’s hands, but he was noted for catching well when he was drafted. Here’s the deal: If the Bears are in a tight situation on third down and need five or six yards to move the chains, Brandon Marshall is going to be the best target on the team to do that dirty work over the middle that you are talking about. Wilson is far from proven but you have to look at him as having more upside than Bennett.
What was the bigger contributor to the Bears allowing Devin Hester to leave via free agency: his projected cap number, diminished offensive role or his decline in history-making returns? Also, how confident should we be that Joe DeCamillis and crew can come close to replicating or replacing (even marginally) the production of Dave Toub and Hester? – Greg M., Naperville, from email
I don’t know how you project a cap number for Hester when he was out of contract other than to say he was going to have a price point that was above what you wanted to pay. Hester wasn’t the same returner this past season that he was earlier in his career. Father Time has a way of catching up with returners and most elite ones have a much smaller window of greatness than Hester did. A combination of factors likely led the Bears not to pursue Hester, who will look to be a spark for the Falcons this season after signing a $9 million, three-year contract with $3.5 million guaranteed. The Bears are not going to replicate the enormous success they had in the return game with Hester. That’s not realistic. Can they come close to it? They’re banking on Chris Williams giving them a weapon in the punt return game and there are a host of candidates to return kickoffs. The Bears were still successful on returns last year with Hester and reaching that level of production would be a good thing even though there was only one touchdown. With a minimum of 28 kickoff returns, Hester ranked sixth at 27.6 yards. On punt returns, he averaged 14.2 yards.
With the release of Fendi Onubun, who is the favorite to back up Martellus Bennett at tight end? – Big D., Chicago, from email
Following the release of Onobun at the conclusion of minicamp last Thursday, the Bears added Jeron Mastrud to the 90-man roster, giving them five tight ends for training camp. That means four players will be vying for what will likely be two spots on the 53 behind starter Martellus Bennett. Dante Rosario, Matthew Mulligan and Zach Miller have been with the team since the start of the offseason. I can tell you that internally at Halas Hall the club feels better about the depth it has than the public does right now. Mulligan is an interesting player. He’s entering his sixth season and has good experience, appearing in 60 games over the last four seasons with the Patriots, Rams, Jets. At 6-4, 267 pounds, he runs better than the Bears expected and it will be interesting to watch him when the pads go on in training camp. He’s primarily a blocking tight end and if he moves better than former tight ends Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis, I think there is probably a spot on the roster for him. Rosario is in a better position this year too after the Bears traded for him during Week 1 a year ago. He was trying to learn on the fly as the Bears put him into action. Rosario had 182 snaps on offense (17.2 percent) and 352 snaps on special teams, which ranked second on the roster behind only linebacker Blake Costanzo.