Brian de la Puente took the road all-too-frequently traveled by undrafted free agents.
After going undrafted out of California in 2008, he was originally signed by the San Francisco 49ers. He then spent time his rookie season on the roster of the Kansas City Chiefs, yet didn't appear in a game. Over the next two seasons he was a practice squad member for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, then bounced back to the 49ers and Seahawks, before settling in with the New Orleans Saints in 2010.
In 2011, de la Puente earned a spot on the Saints' active roster as the backup to Olin Kreutz. Yet after Kreutz's abrupt retirement early in the year, de la Puente was elevated to the starting lineup, where he stayed for three seasons. Between 2011-2013, he started 44 games at the pivot for New Orleans, working under Aaron Kromer, who was then the Saints offensive line coach.
Kromer left New Orleans last season to become the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, yet de la Puente still held his post as the head of New Orleans' offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded 16th best at his position in 2013, with positive marks in pass protection. He gave up just three sacks, and led all Saints linemen with just three QB hits and nine QB hurries allowed.
This offseason, de la Puente became a free agent and, surprisingly, he received very little interesting on the open market. After nearly a month of free agency, he received offers from just three teams. The Saints wanted him to take a big pay cut and compete for his job, while the Detroit Lions wanted him as a backup.
In swooped Kromer and the Bears, who yesterday signed de la Puente to a one-year deal at the veteran minimum ($730,000) with just $165,000 guaranteed. Now that's value folks.
Brian de la Puente
He'll be 29 when the 2014 season begins, so he still has plenty left in the tank, but the fact he's on a one-year deal is curious. He's expected to backup incumbent starter Roberto Garza, a 35-year-old also on a one-year deal. It makes sense for de la Puente to learn under Garza for one season before taking over as Chicago's long-term pivot. Yet the one-year deal means he'll again be a free agent following this season.
If Garza retires and de la Puente decides to move on, the Bears will be starting from scratch at arguably the most important position along the offensive line. Wouldn't it have made more sense to lock up de la Puente for at least two years to avoid that potential scenario?
Kromer knows exactly what he's getting out of de la Puente, so it's not as if he needs to feel out a new player. If he's sold on de la Puente as a legitimate starting center, why the one-year deal?
Obviously, it wasn't Kromer's decision to make, as GM Phil Emery is the man in charge of contracts. The move is great for this season, as it gives the club the best backup center in the league. But that's all de la Puente is, as he's never taken a snap at guard or tackle as a professional. He has no other value than to backup Garza, who has missed just two games since 2006.
Maybe de la Puente wanted to leave his options open next season, hoping he'll garner more attention in 2015 free agency. Honestly though, why would he think the market will be any better for him next year, when he's a year older?
In essence, the Bears signed a starter-caliber center that can't play any other position and will likely never see the field this year.
Or will he?
The expectation is that Garza will resume his post as starter and de la Puente will work behind him. Yet don't rule out the possibility that a 35-year-old will finally hit the wall this season, and that he could be outplayed by a 29-year-old with a chip on his shoulder. If de la Puente is night-and-day better than Garza in training camp, what then? Do Kromer and Marc Trestman stubbornly stick with Garza or hand the keys over to the younger player?
Garza holds no dead money in his contract, meaning the Bears would save more than $1.2 million if they waived him and kept de la Puente. You can be sure that scenario isn't lost on Garza and if it plays out, you risk throwing a young, improving offensive line in flux.
In all likelihood, Garza will retain his role as starter and the Bears will consider re-signing de la Puente following this year, assuming he's a good team fit. If he's a team player and he shows Kromer he hasn't lost a step, de la Puente is likely the heir apparent to Garza. But that's far from guaranteed, which will make training camp very interesting this season.
All of this is bad news for Taylor Boggs, whom the coaching staff was very high on last year. Boggs will enter camp as the No. 3 center with a big hill to climb and will have to be extremely impressive to convince Trestman and Kromer he's worth a roster spot over the veterans ahead of him.
On the surface, adding de la Puente provides the Bears a starter-caliber player who knows Kromer's zone-blocking system and will be able to seamlessly step in if Garza is injured. Yet dig deeper and this move creates a lot of questions, ones that won't be answered until training camp.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in 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.