Outlining Bears’ options at center

Will the Chicago Bears stick with 36-year-old center Roberto Garza next season or will the team make a play for one of the big-name free-agent centers soon to hit the open market?

The Chicago Bears gave center Roberto Garza a contract extension in the final week of the 2014 season. It’s a one-year deal worth a potential $1.5 million.

Yet only $75,000 is guaranteed, which came in the form of a signing bonus tacked on to the team’s 2014 salary cap. Beyond that he’s owed nothing, so the Bears could cut him with relative impunity if they can land a better pivot option this offseason.

Garza will turn 36 in March, yet he’s still serviceable. If the Bears follow through on his deal and he’s again the club’s starting center in 2015, Garza will again be the steady presence along Chicago’s offensive line he’s been the past 10 years.

The ship won’t sink with Garza behind the wheel. Yet GM Ryan Pace will surely be considering his long-term center options this offseason, both in free agency and the draft.

Free Agency

At the center position, there is a pair of bank-breaking options in the free-agent market: Stefen Wisniewski and Rodney Hudson.

Wisniewski (6-3, 307) is a former second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders. He’s only 25 years old and played very well for four years in Oakland. He recently turned down a contract extension from the Raiders and will soon be available to the other 31 NFL teams.

Last season was arguably his best, as Wisniewski was outstanding in pass protection. In 685 pass-block snaps, he allowed just one sack, three QB hits and 12 QB hurries, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). He’s also an above-average run blocker and he’s just about to enter his prime, meaning he’ll command top dollar on the open market.

In terms of average annual salary, Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey ($8.8 million per season) is at the top of the list amongst center. That’s the ceiling. Moving down the line, two other centers (Alex Mack and Ryan Kalil) average more than $8 million a year, while the top eight centers all average more than $6 million per campaign.

To nab Wisniewski, the Bears will need to pay him at least $7 million per season, and likely close to $8 million.

Hudson (6-2, 299) is also a blossoming NFL center. In two seasons as a starter for the Chiefs, he’s allowed just four QB hits and 14 QB hurries combined, per PFF. That’s exceptional. He can also maul in the run game, giving him the all-around skill set to anchor Chicago’s offensive line for the next decade.

Hudson will also command a salary ranging from $7 million-$8 million per season.

Worth the Money?

The Bears have a number of holes to fill on the current roster. Many are key positions on the defensive side of the ball. If the Bears are going to compete next year, investments in the defense will be necessary.

With a 2015 NFL salary cap projected at $140 million, Chicago would have roughly $27.5 million to spend in free agency. Earmarking $4 million for the incoming draft class leaves just $23.5 million. Cut $8 million off the top for a center and that leaves Pace just $15 million to build the rest of the roster.

That’s a tough spot for a first-year GM.

If the salary cap balloons to $150 million, as some have forecasted, the Bears could invest in Wisniewski or Hudson and still have enough left over to beef up the defense. Yet even then it would require some creative work by Cliff Stein to keep that contract from burdening the team in 2015.

The Bears have twice as much money invested in the offense as they do the defense, so adding another $8 million-per-season deal – which would make it the fifth-largest per-year contract on the team – just doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. With so many glaring weaknesses on defense, that money might be better distributed elsewhere.

Other Options

Outside of Wisniewski and Hudson, there are no free-agent options markedly better than Garza. Brian de la Puente might be worth the veteran minimum to again serve as the team’s backup interior offensive lineman but other than that, it’s slim pickings.

The Draft

In order to get a top-flight center, you have to invest a high-round draft pick. Pouncey and Mack are former first-round selections, while Kalil, Wisniewski and Hudson were all second rounders.

Unfortunately for the Bears, there are only two centers in this year’s class even remotely worth a second-round pick, and none will be selected in the first round.

Alabama’s Reese Dismukes and Oregon’s Hroniss Grasu are the top center prospects in 2015 yet both have mid-round talent and could fall to the third or fourth round. It’s tough to forecast either player as a long-term anchor at the next level.

The Solution

The Bears will likely move forward with Garza for one more season. He’s a cost-effective veteran whose presence will help foster continuity across the offensive line. He’s in the swan song of his career but Garza is not a yet a liability.

Wisniewski and Hudson would be huge, game-changing upgrades but their potential price isn’t feasible for Bears brass, who will soon begin the daunting task of rebuilding a defense from the ground up.

The Bears would be wise to invest in Dismukes or Grasu if they fall into the middle rounds. Having a pipeline youngster with starting potential would be a big plus, both in the short- and long-term.



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.

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