Chicago Bears guard Lance Louis was in line for a big payday. The former seventh round pick out of San Diego State was playing very well for the team at right guard in 2012, the last year of his rookie contract. Set to become a free agent for the first time in his career this offseason, Louis was going to get paid. Most likely, the Bears would have shelled out the cash, considering the many issues the club has up front.
Yet that all changed in Week 12 last year, a game against the Minnesota Vikings in which Louis was blindsided by Jared Allen during an interception return. The hit tore the ACL in Louis' left knee, ending his season.
What was supposed to be an offseason in which Louis would celebrate the largest contract of his career, has now turned into a grueling grind of rehab and uncertainty.
G Lance Louis
Typically, recovery time from an ACL tear is eight to 10 months. Louis had his surgery the last week of November. Eight months from that point sets a return date in late July, just in time for the start of training camp. If it takes 10 months, he'll return in late September, about a month into the regular season. And if there are setbacks, he could miss the first half of the 2013 campaign or more.
Even when Louis finally heals, no one can say whether he'll regain his previous form. He's an offensive lineman who relies on quickness and footwork, rather than brute strength. A wobbly knee could limit his ability to move laterally, compromising his ability to pass block, while the knee brace he'll soon be wearing won't help him get down the line on pulls and traps.
New Bears offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer runs a zone blocking scheme that relies on smaller, quicker offensive lineman that can pick off defenders in space. Of all the blockers on Chicago's current roster, Louis is by far the best fit for that type of scheme, when he was healthy.
If he does return to form, Louis would be a key contributor under Kromer. Which puts the Bears in a tough position. Louis is potentially the best fit for the offensive line going forward, yet because of the knee injury, he's loaded with risk. And at the same time, he's a player who is looking to cash in for the first time in his career. Injury or no injury, Louis feels he's earned a significant increase in pay and will be expecting as much once negotiations begin.
The best bet for both sides would be to compromise and give Louis a contract with incentives and escalators. A two- or three-year deal with a base salary of $1.5 million, with incentives that could earn him up to $3 million-$4 million per season, could satisfy both sides. If his recovery takes longer than expected, or if he's no longer the player he once was, the Bears are only on the hook for a few million. And if Louis returns to full health and dominates on the field, he'll get paid accordingly.
This is a situation that must be approached with caution. Like Brian Urlacher last season, the Bears need to make sure Louis is healthy before they drop large sums into his deal. Chicago can't let Louis walk but they also can't overpay for a player coming off major knee surgery. Creative structuring by Cliff Stein, the club's lead contract negotiator, will be necessary in order to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.