The Chicago Bears this off-season must answer a very important question: where will Kyle Long play next season?
Long was an elite right guard his first two years in the NFL, earning trips to the Pro Bowl both seasons. Yet the Bears last year abruptly moved him to right tackle a week before the start of the regular season.
Never before had Long played on the edge, not at Oregon nor at Saddleback College, so it wasn't surprising when he struggled early in the campaign, particularly in pass protection. At guard in 2014, he gave up just 2 QB hits, 13 QB hurries and no sacks. At tackle in 2015, he allowed 3 QB hits, 28 QB hurries and 6 sacks. That's a significant step backward.
Yet Long improved as the season progressed and played his best football down the stretch. As a result, he was named to his third straight Pro Bowl.
How deserving he was of this year's trip to Hawaii is up for debate - being the son of Howie Long definitely has its perks - but the bottom line is that Long is an elite offensive lineman, one who is versatile enough to succeed at multiple positions.
As a result, a long-standing debate as to his ideal position continues to rage. Some believe he should be moved back inside to guard, while others feel his development last season makes him best suited to stay at right tackle. Still others feel that a player with his extreme athleticism - he's easily one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the league, even at 6-6, 328 - will allow him to excel at left tackle.
It's a good problem to have and it doesn't appear as if the Bears are in a rush to decide Long's landing spot next season.
"I think it’s easy for him to go back to guard. It would be harder if we put him at guard and then put him back out at tackle," GM Ryan Pace said this week. "We’ve just got to go through this player acquisition period and see how the chips fall and then put him in a spot and let him grow there."
Base on Pace's comments, it's clear the team does not have a set-in-stone plan for Long this upcoming season. Pace is going to wait until after he acquires players through free agency and in the draft before deciding where Long will play in 2016
"Kyle has some position flexibility," Pace said. "I think with our offensive line when I look at that we’ve got some flexibility with some guys there. Our goal is to improve that position, but just acquire the best players and let it all sort out and start the best five.”
This a good position for Pace, who can sign free agents and draft offensive linemen without worrying about where Long will play. If he signs a mauling right guard and drafts a left tackle, then Long stays on the right edge. If he upgrades both positions on the right side of the line, then Long shifts to left tackle. In essence, Long will be the final piece of the offensive line puzzle, who can be plugged in at almost any position.
Yet there is concern about the timing of that upcoming decision, and rightfully so. For some inexplicable reason, it took Chicago's coaching staff an entire off-season of activities, plus training camp and four preseason contests before they realized Jordan Mills was not starter worthy. They then had to scramble to fill out the front five, resulting in Long's position switch just a few days before the regular-season opener.
That's a scenario most fans would like to avoid and it appears Pace feels the same.
“That’s part of it and we talk about it," Pace said. "The main thing with Kyle is we need to make this decision after the player acquisition period is over with and as best as we can try to leave him at a certain spot."
Having a player of Long's ability is a luxury most teams can only dream about. He's one of the best offensive linemen in the league, a Pro Bowler at both guard and tackle, a team player who will line up wherever the coaches tell him to without complaint.
So there's no rush to decide where he'll play moving forward. Pace is going to use Long's positional flexibility to his advantage, acquiring the best offensive line talent regardless of position, then rounding out the front five with his Pro-Bowl caliber team leader.
Sounds like a solid plan to me.