Jermon Bushrod: Upgrade or Side Step?
In a busy first day of free agency the most contentious signing on the PFF Twitter timeline was without doubt the buzz and discussion around the Bears signing of former New Orleans Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod to replace J’Marcus Webb on Jay Cutler’s blindside.
On the surface, and at the simplest level, this appears to be an absolute slam dunk, no-brainer upgrade for the Bears. They’ve just secured a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle to replace a tackle who has been prone to some absolutely dreadful performances in his two seasons as the Bears’ left tackle. However, as you’ll know if you were following twitter last night, we here at Pro Football Focus don’t view the move as such a clear cut upgrade worthy of the Bears’ investment.
As one of the most intriguing and debated signings of the first day, I felt it was worth a closer look to see things from both sides and see how this deal pans out now and the factors to consider moving forward.
What Do The 2012 Grades Say?
If you look on the surface of our Premium Stats section you’ll see the grades that were quoted by many on twitter last night to illustrate just how close the full body of work these two put forth was last season. In terms of overall grade they were separated by little more than 2.0, and just three positions in our grading ranks for the regular season. Bushrod weighed in at 44th with an overall grade of +1.5, with Webb just behind in 47th and -0.8. Head to our Signature Stats section and you’ll see a similar story, with Webb slightly ahead in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency at 94.2 (43rd overall) and Bushrod trailing just behind at 93.6 (55th overall). Our opinion goes further than just taking the overall picture, but at this broad brush stroke level, and for their full seasons, these two are not separated by much at all.
Dig a little deeper though, and go game by game with the grades and you see even more just how similar these two were last season — each had a solitary game (Webb in Week 1, Bushrod in Week 11) around a +5.0 grade, which is extremely good for an offensive tackle, while they also each had a trio of games of -2.5 overall or below. At least in 2012 you can clearly see that in grading terms these two are playing to a very similar level.
The Development Curve
However, you don’t just hand out contracts based on the previous season — contrary to the weight of players in the past getting paid for “contract year” performances — you get paid based upon what you have done in the past and how that projects forward to the duration of the contract the team is looking to negotiate. So the Bears won’t just have been looking at what Bushrod and Webb did in 2012, they will have looked at their development in recent seasons (with new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer providing the knowledge on Bushrod’s development) and how they think that projects forward for the upcoming three to five seasons. In terms of Bushrod’s development as a four-year starter in New Orleans you can see a clear upward drive in annual overall grades, but within each season the same inconsistency has remained. His pass protection grade had improved every single season as a starter until 2012 where a shoddy start to the season (-7.5 after three weeks) handicapped him for the rest of the campaign. Bushrod hit his high watermark in 2011 with a +14.0 overall grade and a +8.1 pass protection grade (including playoffs), and it is that Bushrod the Bears will be hoping they have signed.
Now, that development curve is clearly there for Bushrod, a product of Towson State, but in Webb the Bears had their own offensive tackle from a lower division college (West Texas A&M) who was toeing a clear upward trend in his performance level. Webb was thrust almost immediately into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2010, but on the right side of the Bears’ offensive line. This is a common development ploy for teams with young offensive tackles, but if they are unfamiliar with the right side and don’t naturally have the footwork to switch sides (a concept Sam Monson explored with help from current NFL players during last season) then you won’t see the best from them and Webb clearly struggled with the right side and the whole step up in competition to the NFL level. However, since that dismal rookie year (-35.0), when just about every start was a disaster, he has improved season by season. In 2011, his first season back on the left side of the line, he showed his potential with a series of positively graded games (three of +2.0 or above) and an improved, though still poor, overall grade (-16.2). This season Webb made similar strides, and for much of the season was not in the least bit of a problem for the Bears. However, what blighted Webb, and ensures that he retains his most vocal of critics, is that he was still prone to some dreadful performances in pass protection and unfortunately for him they tended to come in front of a national audience.
That final point on Webb, and the next hurdle in his development, is the crucial deciding factor in whether you perceive he deserved another year to prove he could continue to develop, or whether you think it was time for the Bears to move on. If you think that isolated performances like the dressing down he got from the Green Bay Packers (-3.0 overall, 2 sacks and 2 hurries allowed) in Week 2 and the dismal performance in San Francisco (-6.4 overall, 3 sacks and 5 hurries allowed) preclude you from being a starting left tackle, then the other 14 games would need to be exceptional to convince you he gets another year. However, if you view eliminating those games as the next step in his development, and he has cut them down in each of the last two seasons, then you might be willing to give Webb another season. With a fan base baying for a change of plan at left tackle it would’ve been a very brave move to leave Webb in place for the 2013 season.
So, A Worthwhile Move Or Not?
The question, however, is not entirely whether Webb needed to be replaced or whether Bushrod at that price is the right man to replace him. As much as Webb is prone to dreadful isolated performances, so is Bushrod. In the first three weeks this season he surrendered 20 pressures (1 Sk, 4 Ht, 15 Hu), and back in 2011 (his best season) he had three terrible games in pass protection that have all the hallmarks of Webb’s worst games. He surrendered eight pressures (-4.5 pass protection, 1 Ht, 7 Hu) to the Bucs in Week 6, six pressures (-3.1, 1 Sk, 5 Hu) to the Rams in Week 8 and 10 pressures (-4.3, 1 Sk, 4 Ht, 5 Hu) to the 49ers in the Saints’ playoff defeat. Those are single-game performances eerily reminiscent of Webb’s worst games in 2012.
The key difference between these two is that Bushrod has reached his high watermark in 2011 and Webb, with fewer years as a starter, has not done that yet. This statement by the Bears suggests that they do not have the patience for Webb to finish his development, or the belief that he will. Right now this appears to be a marginal upgrade for what appears to be a fairly large free agent contract.
However, at the end of the day we’re all waiting for the 2013 NFL season to kickoff to find out how this deal plays out for Chicago. Until we see Bushrod in a Bears uniform protecting Jay Cutler’s blindside and trying to spark Matt Forte in the running game we won’t know for sure what value the Bears have got out of this deal.
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