This is the first part of an in-depth series that will examine the status of the top Chicago Bears free agents. The offense will be the focus in this first part.
The Bears have 26 free agents, including 22 unrestricted free agents this off-season.
On Friday, we took a look at veteran center Roberto Garza's status with the team moving forward. Today, we examine swing tackle Eben Britton's future in Chicago.
Who: Offensive lineman Eben Britton, 26-year-old from Arizona
2013 contract: one-year deal worth $715,000
The 2009 second round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars fell out of favor in Jacksonville after battling through injuries and struggling at left guard in 2012.
Looking for a fresh start and a chance to restart his NFL career, the Bears signed him this past off-season to add depth to the offensive line.
Britton served as a solid swing tackle this season, earning four "starts" at tight end. With Martellus Bennett entrenched as the starter, the Bears found themselves struggling to find a No. 2 tight end as Steve Maneri (released on Oct. 21) and Dante Rosario (acquired on Sept. 2), both didn't impress much.
Britton was basically a decoy on passing plays, but spent most of his time blocking for Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. He docked over 200 snaps on the season, even serving as the lead blocker out of the backfield.
Rookie right tackle Jordan Mills went down after the opening series in the season finale against Green Bay and Britton stepped in, doing a solid job. It was the first time all season that the offensive line didn't have the same five players together.
With Britton out there for the rest of the game, the Bears didn't miss a beat, especially in the running game.
"Certainly running the ball effectively," head coach Marc Trestman said about Britton's play against the Packers. "He was a part of that, which is a good thing."
Mills exited that game with a left foot injury and had surgery earlier this month to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot. The typical recovery time for that injury according to Physioroom.com is about 8-10 weeks.
The Bears should expect Mills to be back at some point, but at this point his status for off-season workouts and training camp is unclear. That could trigger the Bears to offer Britton a short-term deal (2-3 years) to return and serve as a reliable option off the bench behind the starting five.
Left guard Matt Slauson became friends quickly with Britton. Last month, when both of their families were on vacation, Clauson invited Britton to crash at his house.
“He would start on 31 other teams,” Slauson said of Britton.
Britton started 30 games in his four seasons in Jacksonville, including 23 at right tackle and seven at left guard, so he has plenty of versatility. 15 of those starts at right tackle came during his rookie season. Who knows maybe he will be back serving as a decoy tight end once again in 2014.
“I love being able to get on the field,” he said. “I love being able to compete and help my team win any way I can. Now it’s at monster tight end."
Why will he be back?
Britton is a versatile lineman, who can play basically any position along the line. He proved in 2013 that he is a solid sixth man and is worthy of the swing tackle job. The Bears offensive line was dependable last season and with Britton the top option off the bench, the Bears are better off. He still has many years left in the league and with Aaron Kromer coaching him, he could improve his game even more. If Mills' recovery takes longer than expected, Britton could be the starting right tackle through training camp if re-signed.
Why won't he be back?
Many NFL teams are looking for steady offensive line play. Depth is something each general manager looks for on their respective teams. Britton could provide solid depth either as a starter or in the sixth man role that he played this past season. If he is offered a starting gig elsewhere, expect him to jump on that opportunity. The Bears won't likely dish out starter money for a player who they view as a swing tackle. Expect the Bears to offer him a contract, but they might not be able to retain his services if another team comes calling with a bigger payday.
Up Next: Defensive end Corey Wootton
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