The Chicago Bears last season showcased an offensive line that featured four new starters, including two rookies on the right side. The result was a Top 10 overall offense and a unit that allowed the second fewest sacks in the league. Compared to the porous pass protection and overall inconsistencies of Chicago's offensive lines in recent seasons, the front five last year was a tremendous boon, instead of a hindrance, to Marc Trestman's offense.
Due in large part to the protection up front, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown both had career years, while Matt Forte finished second in the league in rushing. Yet it wasn't just the starters who upgraded the offense, as sixth man Eben Britton played a complimentary and important role as the club's sixth blocker.
In both the rushing and passing attacks, Britton was used as an extra edge blocker, lining up as the "monster" tight end on the edge, at H-back and at fullback. With the recent re-signing of veteran center Roberto Garza, the Bears will return all five offensive-line starters this year. Britton is about to hit free agency. We weigh the pros and cons of re-signing the five-year veteran.
Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports
Britton played in all but three games last season and was on the field for 239 total snaps. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he did not allow a single sack and gave up just two total QB hurries. He was even better as a run blocker and provided extra girth in short-yardage situations. Per PFF, only Matt Slauson graded higher as a run blocker last season.
In the season finale against the Green Bay Packers, Britton was inserted as the starting right tackle four snaps into the game due to an injury to Jordan Mills. Britton played 48 snaps and had his best game of the season, helping pave the way for Matt Forte's 110 rushing yards and two scores.
Britton has been a relative bust since being selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round (39th overall) of the 2009 draft. He was injured throughout his four years in Jacksonville and was eventually moved to guard in 2012. He was given an opportunity to earn a starting job in training camp last year with the Bears and lost out to a fifth-round rookie. At just 26-years-old, Britton still has upside, but he's been very unreliable and inconsistent throughout his career.
Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em
Mills may have been the team's starting right tackle last year but he was third best tackle on the team. According to PFF, Mills gave up 62 QB hurries last season, which was far and away the most of any tackle in the league in 2014. Those 62 hurries were more than former Bears offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb gave up in 2011 and 2012 combined. Mills only gave up three sacks, which is why folks aren't calling for his head on a platter. Yet that was due mainly to Trestman's quick-strike passing offense and the fact Mills played on the right edge, where the quarterbacks can see the rush coming and adjust accordingly. Had Mills played on the left side, Cutler and McCown would not have finished the season.
Moving forward, Mills has to improve. A repeat performance next season could end up weighing down the offense. The Bears got away with Mills giving up pressure once every nine passing attempts but that's walking a fine line, one that could end up sending a quarterback to the hospital.
The Bears have many needs on defense and will likely spend all but one or two draft picks on defensive players. In addition, the team doesn't have much money to spend in free agency, so GM Phil Emery won't be able to bring in a big-name veteran to shore up the right side.
With Britton, the Bears have a player who will come at or near the veteran minimum ($730,000). He's familiar with the system and showed very well in limited duty last year. He also showed great versatility, lining up at multiple positions on both sides of the offensive line. That type of positional flexibility goes a long way.
A prudent move would be to re-sign Britton and let him again challenge Mills for the starting right tackle gig. If Mills has improved and again wins the job in training camp, Britton can resume his sixth-man role, one in which he flourished last season. His experience at multiple positions would also give the Bears a jack-of-all-trades backup who can free up game-day roster spots at other positions of need.
Britton may look for a starting gig elsewhere in free agency and if he finds it, he won't return to Chicago. Yet he told me at the end of last season that 2013 was the most fun he's ever had playing football. So if the market doesn't present him with a starting opportunity and he's willing to return to the Windy City, re-signing Britton should be a no-brainer for Emery.
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.