The Chicago Bears offense struggled last season due in part to an offensive line that regressed.
Injuries played a role – the team used nine different starting front-five combinations last year, compared to just one starting lineup in 2013 – but the players also underperformed individually, particularly on the edges.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and right tackle Jordan Mills combined for 1,200 pass-block snaps last season. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the duo allowed 62 combined QB hurries, or roughly 20 percent of their pass-block snaps.
Think about that, an edge rusher was allowed into the backfield once every five times a Bears quarterback dropped back to pass last season. In addition, the duo gave up 11 sacks and allowed 15 QB hits.
That’s a surefire way to limit a passing attack.
Mills has struggled for two straight seasons and Bushrod, while well compensated, was also a mixed bag as a run blocker last year. To cut Bushrod the Bears would pay $6.6 million in dead money, which is substantial, but not cap crippling. If the club wants to truly move forward on offense, they’ll consider replacements on both edges, through both free agency and the draft.
With that in mind, here are the top veteran free-agent offensive tackles that will hit the open market on March 10.
Bryan Bulaga (6-5, 314) Age: 26
Bulaga is a serious injury risk. He’s played a full 16-game campaign just once, his rookie season in 2010. He missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL and sat out the final seven games in 2012 with a hip injury. Yet he missed just one contest in 2014 and performed at a very high level. Bulaga is one of the top pass-blocking right tackles in the game and has experience on the blindside as well. If healthy, he’s by far the best edge protector amongst this year’s veteran class and would be a huge boost for Chicago’s passing attack. Stealing a top-tier right tackle from a division rival would be a big bonus as well.
Michael Roos (6-7, 313) Age: 32
Roos is a three-time All-Pro left tackle who is still one of the best in the business, both in pass protection and as a run blocker. Yet he had season-ending surgery on his right knee after five games last season and he turns 33 in October. It’s questionable if he can make a full recovery at this stage in his career and considering his potential price tag – Roos, a former 2005 second-round pick, missed just one game in his career previous to last season – the Bears might be better off pursuing a more stable long-term option.
Jermey Parnell (6-6, 315) Age: 29
As the Cowboys’ swing tackle last year, Parnell played 388 snaps at right tackle. He didn’t allow a sack and gave up just one QB hit. He was also dominant as a run blocker in front of NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray. Parnell turns 29 in July but he’s still relatively fresh, having started just seven games the past three years in Dallas. Parnell as an under-the-radar free agent with a lot of upside, one whose lack of starting experience will keep his price tag low. He could be a very affordable option for the Bears.
Doug Free (6-6, 325) Age: 31
Free has had an up-and-down career in Dallas but he’s played well the past two seasons at right tackle. He missed five games with foot and ankle injuries last year, which opened the door for Parnell, yet Free started every contest the previous three seasons. He allowed just 17 QB hurries and two QB hits in 2014, and was a mauler in the rung game. At the right price, Free would be a substantial short-term upgrade over Mills.
Joe Barksdale (6-5, 326) Age: 26
Barksdale allowed 40 hurries last season, which is surprising, as he gave up just 18 hurries in 13 starts the year before. Yet in the run game, he was a road grader. If he can shore up his issues in protection, Barksdale is the type of mauling right tackle who could lift Chicago’s run game. At just 26 years old, he still has time for improvement, so Barksdale may be worth a look, especially if he continues to improve as a run blocker.
Derek Newton (6-6, 313) Age: 27
Newton improved dramatically as a run blocker last season, his third straight at right tackle for the Texans. Yet he’s allowed 36 and 37 QB hurries the past two years respectively, per PFF, which is troubling. Newton would provide a bump in the run game but he’s hardly an upgrade over Mills in protection.
King Dunlap (6-9, 330) Age: 29
Dunlap is one of the best run-blocking left tackles in the game but he regressed last season in pass protection, allowing 36 QB hurries. He’s had success as a blindside protector in the past, so he can at least be serviceable on passing downs, while providing a boost in the run game.
THE PICK: Jermey Parnell
Bulaga is ideal in terms of skill-set but he'll be expensive and he's a substantial injury risk.
Jermey Parnell was excellent last year in place of the injured Doug Free. At right tackle, he’d be an immediate upgrade over Mills in both pass protection and in the run game. He’s just 29 and has little wear on his tires, so his best may be yet to come.
Parnell is a very cheap option with plenty of upside. At the very least, he’ll make a quality swing tackle. At best, the Bears will get an anchor on the right side for years to come.
Others to Consider
Michael Oher (6-4, 315) Age: 29
Once one of the better offensive tackles in the league, Oher has regressed each of the past three years and was just cut by the Titans. Pass.
Corey Hilliard (6-6, 300) Age: 30
A career backup, Hilliard was serviceable in seven starts two years ago. He’s a viable swing-tackle option.
Eben Britton (6-6, 308) Age: 27
Britton has served as the Chicago’s swing tackle the past two seasons but has yet to leapfrog Mills on the depth chart. He’s a solid run blocker and deserves one more shot under the new coaching staff.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.