Heading into the 2014 offseason, center was an obvious position of need for the Chicago Bears, with 2011 undrafted free agent Taylor Boggs (only has appeared in one NFL game) the only center on the roster. And when I say "position of need", I mean both short-term and long-term in this instance.
In February, general manager Phil Emery chose to re-sign center Roberto Garza to a one-year deal. Garza has been the Bears' starting center for several recent years (and a starting guard for the team for many years before that), and was solid for the Bears in 2013, but is now 35 so he obviously isn't the long-term answer at the position.
So even after signing a capable 2014 starter in Garza, the Bears still needed to consider finding Garza's successor soon for 2015+ (if I were a betting man I'd guess 2014 is his last year with the Bears).
And they may have done that on Sunday with the surprising signing of 29-year-old (in May) center Brian De La Puente to a one-year deal:
LM: #Bears have agreed to terms with free agent center Brian de la Puente on 1-year deal. Puente spent last 3 years with Saints.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) April 6, 2014
Heck, it's possible the 6'3", 306-pound De La Puente is the short-term answer at center as well. It's likely that De La Puente, the Saints' starting center for the last three seasons, at least challenges Garza for the starting job in training camp.
And current Bears offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was De La Puente's offensive line coach in New Orleans from 2010-2012. Kromer surely influenced Emery's decision to make this signing.
Pro Football Focus's Pete Damilatis tweeted out this infographic comparing the PFF grades of De La Puente and Garza since 2011:
Demilatis also shared this PFF article which ranked De La Puente as the second-best center on the market entering the 2014 free-agency period:
De La Puente is a good pass-blocking center; in his three seasons as a starter he has never posted a Pass Blocking Efficiency under 98.2 and has given up a total of 46 pressures in 2144 passing snaps. In his best season has a pro, 2012, De La Puente managed to take his pass-blocking skill set and add to it by drastically improving his run blocking. In 2011 and 2013 he put up a poor combined run blocking grade of -8.5, but showed in 2012 what he was capable of by recording a +13.6.
With De La Puente turning 29 before the season, interested teams will either have to accept the idea that he is simply good pass blocker who struggles in the run game, or bank on him regaining his form from 2012. The team that adds De La Puente to their roster will be getting a reliable player who, in the past three seasons, has not missed any time due to injury.
Then there's another idea, suggested by 670 The Score's Joe Ostrowski... could this signing be a precursor to a move of Kyle Long from right guard to right tackle (and one of De La Puente/Garza to guard)?
With De La Puente signing, wouldn't shock me to see Kyle Long move to RT. Something Phil Emery talked about the night he was drafted. #Bears
— Joe Ostrowski (@JoeO670) April 6, 2014
Jordan Mills starting 16 gms at RT is more than you can expect out of 5th rd pick. Mills gave up 9 more QB hurries than any OT. #Bears @PFF
— Joe Ostrowski (@JoeO670) April 6, 2014
Whatever the case, De La Puente at least provides the Bears with two starting-capable centers and terrific depth at the position in 2014, as well as a potential starting option at center for 2015+.
Additionally, with this move, center is no longer a position the Bears will need to seriously consider using a draft pick on in May. Emery has provided himself with much more draft flexibility after these recent free-agent moves.
UPDATE- Details on De La Puente's contract per the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs:
The Bears will give de la Puente a $65,000 signing bonus, the maximum in a minimum-salary benefit deal, and guaranteed $100,000 of his base salary.Get the latest DBN updates by following us on Facebook & Twitter.