Chicago Bears offensive lineman Roberto Garza had a very strong season in 2013. After being moved from guard to center in 2011, Garza struggled his first two years at the pivot. Last year, his third at center, Garza flipped the switch and played very well, particularly in pass protection.
During this offseason, Bears GM Phil Emery has expressed his desire to re-sign Garza. Yet even if the two sides agree on a new contract, it won't likely be a long-term deal, as Garza turns 35 in March.
A number of quality centers will soon hit the open market. If the Bears want to solidify their offensive line for years to come, they'll give strong consideration to these players. Let's break them down.
Financials: The top paid center in the league, St. Louis' Scott Wells, makes $5.5 million in 2014. The 10th highest paid center, San Diego's Nick Hardwick, makes $3.4 million. The 20th highest paid center, Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey, is due $1.28 million next year.
Alex Mack (6-4, 311) Age: 28
A former first-round pick in 2009, Mack is a two-time Pro Bowl center who has played every single game for the Browns during his first five years in the league. He's strong in every area of his game and he's extremely durable. Cleveland is working hard to re-sign him but if Mack gets loose, he could turn Chicago's offensive line from good to great.
Evan Dietrich-Smith (6-2, 308) Age: 28
Dietrich-Smith was a career backup before starting 16 games at center for the Packers last season. He fared well at the pivot, particularly in pass protection. He can also play guard, which gives him further value. He's seven years younger than Garza with very little mileage on his tires. If the Packers can't retain him, Dietrich-Smith would be a great fit in Chicago.
Brian De La Puente (6-3, 306) Age: 29
De La Puente has been very good as the Saints' starter the last three seasons. He can pass protect and maul in the run game. The Saints have a lot of money already tied up in their offensive line, so De La Puente is unlikely to return to New Orleans. He played under current Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer for three years in New Orleans. De La Puente knows Kromer's zone-blocking scheme and could fit in immediately in Chicago. If Emery is going to aggressively pursue a free-agent center, it should be De Le Puente.
Rich Ohrnberger (6-2, 300) Age: 28
Ohrnberger is a career backup who has started just five total games. He's not great in pass protection but he can move bodies as a run blocker. His one start in 2013 came in the playoffs, where he played very well in San Diego's loss to the Broncos. As an under-the-radar free agent, Ohrnberger would come very cheap and could pay dividends.
Jonathan Goodwin (6-3, 318) Age: 35
Goodwin is a 12-year veteran but he showed last year he still has some gas left in the tank. He's been a big reason the 49ers have been one of the best running teams in the league the past few years. Goodwin is extremely solid and seasoned but he's 35 and is nothing more than a one-year rental.
Ryan Wendell (6-2, 300) Age: 27
Wendell has started the past two years for the Patriots. He was outstanding in 2012 but regressed considerably last season, particularly in pass protection. Yet Wendell is one of the best run-blocking centers in the game, so if he can learn to better protect the quarterback, he would definitely be worth a two- or three-year investment.
The PickBrian De La Puente
Emery and head coach Marc Trestman have said publicly on multiple occasions that the team will get younger on defense this offseason. That likely means a draft loaded with defensive players. So upgrades on offense will likely come during free agency.
Additionally, Trestman puts a premium on protecting the quarterback, so if the Bears are going to spend big on an offensive player this offseason, it will likely be up front.
De La Puente won't come cheap but the center position doesn't cost a lot. The Bears could make him one of the top paid players at his position and he'd still only cost around $4.5 million per year, which is affordable.
De La Puente is comfortable with Kromer and Chicago's zone-blocking system. There would be no learning curve for him. He could immediately be plugged into the starting lineup and the Bears' front five wouldn't miss a beat. If Garza can't be retained, De La Puente, who is six years younger, would be an absolutely perfect replacement.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.