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A left tackle mess: How Bears got here, and how they fix it originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
LAKE FOREST – When Bears tight end Jimmy Graham teed off on the NFL Players Association earlier this month, one of his frustrations was rooted in a significantly reduced salary cap in 2021 despite every game getting played in 2020 during a global pandemic.
“Makes no sense. With a fully successful season and now going into another full year with an extra game -- a game where a lot of guys aren't getting paid -- that makes no sense,” Graham said. “You strap teams with cap space and you strap teams that need it.”
The Bears are one of the teams that need it. And Graham isn’t the only one in the organization frustrated. While all 32 teams dealt with the same pandemic in 2020, not all teams are on the same salary cap schedules. Teams plan their cap budgets years in advance and none of them planned for a season in which a limited amount of fans – or in the Bears’ case, no fans – would be in attendance at games. Thus, the 7.92 percent salary cap reduction -- from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million in 2021 -- hurt some teams more than others.
Graham was in the middle of it. At 34 years old and with no guaranteed money left on his contract, he was an obvious candidate to be a cap casualty during the offseason. The Bears could have created $7 million in salary cap space by letting Graham go at any point.
Considering the league added a 17th regular season game this year and also announced a new media rights agreement reportedly worth up to $113 billion over the next 11 years, one would think the NFLPA could have fought a little harder for its members not to be squeezed by a shrinking cap. Instead, the union focused on boycotting voluntary offseason workouts, an effort that virtually failed.
As it turned out, Graham was valued enough by the organization to keep his job, but at the expense of other teammates. The Bears had tough to decisions to make to stay under the salary cap. Even after restructuring the contracts of Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Cody Whitehair, they still released former All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller to free up $11 million.
And yet, when all the dust settled, the biggest problem created by the chaos came at left tackle.
How the Bears got here
Given the dire cap situation the Bears are in, it was obvious they had to create holes on their roster to fill other holes, with the overall goal of getting younger and, eventually, better.
That’s where the NFL Draft came in.
Even after releasing Fuller, another big move had to be made to sign a new rookie class and stay under the salary cap.
The plausible options included:
1. Releasing or extending either Graham, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks or left tackle Charles Leno Jr., all in the final year of their contracts. An extension could have lowered their cap numbers in 2021, while putting more financial obligations on the books in future years.
2. Signing wide receiver Allen Robinson to a lucrative extension, essentially conceding a contract negotiation stalemate, but solving two problems at once. Robinson is on the books for just under $18 million in 2021 after getting the franchise tag, and a new contract could have lowered that number dramatically.
The Bears opted to let the NFL Draft play out before making a move and ended up drafting Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins at No. 39 overall in the second round and Missouri offensive tackle Larry Borom in the fifth round.
That suddenly made Charles Leno Jr. expendable, and Bears general manager Ryan Pace made a quick move to release Leno just three days after drafting Jenkins, freeing up $9 million.
The team had already identified left tackle as a position they wanted to improve in 2021, but Pace also had to balance that desire with the reality that Leno had started 93 straight games at the position. He’s the definition of durability and reliability at a premium position.
Even before Jenkins’ back issues became a major problem, the quick move to release Leno appeared risky, because at a minimum, the Bears were going to be asking a rookie who primarily played right tackle in college to start right away on the left side in the NFL. As it turned out, that gamble was even larger than realized at the time, because Jenkins had fallen out of the first round after many teams flagged his back issues in college as a major risk.
“We were aware of the back issues in college, but these are symptoms that are new,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Wednesday after announcing Jenkins needed back surgery that will keep the rookie out for most, if not all, of his rookie season.
Could this have played out differently? Did the Bears need to be in such a rush to release Leno? They had to make some sort of move to fit their rookies under the cap (they even had to wait until June 1 when Leno’s contract cleared the books to sign the rookies), but perhaps it would have been prudent to give Jenkins time to acclimate to the NFL – and the left side -- before releasing a guy who had started 93 straight games at left tackle.
Of course, this is now being analyzed with the benefit of hindsight, except for the fact that the Bears knew about Jenkins’ back history at the time.
So what now?
Regardless of what happened in the offseason, the Bears now have a giant hole at left tackle and 3.5 weeks to fill it.
Enter 39-year-old Jason Peters, a future Hall-of-Famer whose best days are behind him. Can he still hold his own at left tackle? Perhaps. But Charles Leno-level play is probably the ceiling at this point in career and expecting the same type of durability would be foolish.
Elijah Wilkinson, a former undrafted free agent, has 26 starts over four NFL seasons, but his experience is mostly at right tackle and guard. He’s the type of swing tackle you’re OK making a spot start or two. Asking him to be the full-time left tackle is a stretch and not what the Bears signed him to do.
And then there’s Borom. Back in April, it seemed redundant to draft two offensive tackles with back-to-back picks, but Nagy confirmed the 6-5 rookie, who has dramatically changed his body since playing at Missouri last year, will be in the mix at left tackle.
“We probably saw (Borom could play left tackle) when we saw the weight he lost in OTAs and you saw the personality of who he was,” Nagy said. “It’s hard to tell in OTAs with really where you’re at without pads. Once we got to training camp we saw some good things — individual drills we saw that he was light on his feet. He’s staying extra, putting in extra time, eliminating distractions. And then we got to that Family Fest — to me that kind of showed, hey, the stage wasn’t too big for him. The first day of pads, out there in front of everybody, that was a different setting for our players, and he did great.”
But that was just one day in pads, and Borom suffered a concussion in the very next practice. He’s still a fifth-round rookie who just missed two weeks of practices. He needs a lot of reps.
“Those guys are competing. We’ve made that loud and clear and I think (Borom is) in a great spot, especially with Teven’s situation,” Nagy said. “This is a good opportunity for a guy like Larry to step up.”
Perhaps all of this would easier to swallow if the right side was settled. But at right tackle, incumbent Germain Ifedi remains on the PUP list after a hip flexor injury suffered during the conditioning test at the beginning of training camp. Offering up a glimmer of hope is 2020 seventh round pick Lachavious Simmons, who has received virtually all the first-team reps at right tackle.
“How great is that for the depth of us to have Simmons be able to get all these reps at right tackle? It’s huge for versatility,” Nagy said.
But versatility is only called on when a reliable starter is needed. That’s what the Bears face right now. Then again, there was once a time when Leno was a little-known seventh-round pick out of Boise State who got his shot when veteran Jermon Bushrod suffered an injury.
Perhaps two starting offensive tackles will emerge, but the clock is ticking as the Bears face the Rams on Sunday Night Football in 24 days.