Secret Superstars 2014: Bears
As our Secret Superstar series rolls on, we come to the Chicago Bears, who are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. To do that, Chicago needed to have an offseason focused on rebuilding its porous defense that ranked near the bottom of nearly every major category in 2013. With a bevy of free agent signings on the defensive side and a draft focused on bringing in young talent on that side as well, Chicago looks headed towards fixing the problem that kept it one game away from an NFC North Championship.
Going into the offseason, there weren’t many positions of need on the offensive side. Instead, re-signing players that contributed in 2013 and solidifying depth was the top concern for the Bears’ front office. Chicago needed cheap, veteran signings to ensure that in case of injuries or regressions, the offense would still be the strength of this team.
So, as unconventional as it is, a guy who didn’t play a single snap for Chicago last season, but was a starter on a playoff team, is this year’s Secret Superstar for the Bears. Because of his experience and talent, Brian De La Puente is a great value signing for the Bears and could be one of the Chicago’s most important players this upcoming year.
Journeyman to Starter
Undrafted out of California in 2008, Brian De La Puente bounced between practice squads of four different NFL teams (Niners, Seahawks, Panthers and Chiefs) before finding a home with the New Orleans Saints in 2010. In 2011, after Jonathan Goodwin left New Orleans for a rich deal in San Francisco, De La Puente found himself as a backup to Olin Kreutz. Kreutz was, ironically, one of the best offensive linemen in Chicago Bear history, but headed for New Orleans after things didn’t work out contractually in Chicago. Kreutz’ injuries, and eventually abrupt retirement, forced De La Puente into the starting center spot. De la Puente was then finally given the opportunity to show he belonged in the NFL, and he made the most of it.
De La Puente thrived in his new role, playing 945 snaps in relief of Kreutz and every snap of the 2012 season, where he posted the second-highest overall grade at the position at +23.0. Even though he played every snap this past season as well, his production slipped (+4.0), which is likely why New Orleans was comfortable with letting him walk. Still, De La Puente was a top Center in Pass Blocking Efficiency at 98.3 in 2013 and only allowed 15 pressures based on three sacks, nine hurries and three hits during the regular season.
At 29, he provides a possible long-term option at the position once current starter Roberto Garza is done with the team and is also a versatile backup who can play guard as well.
Run Blocking Woes
Looking back to his 2012 grades, De La Puente was one of the best Centers in the league because of his ability to punish defenders in the run game. His +13.6 run block grade in 2012 plummeted to -3.6 this past season, which pretty much tells the story of his relapse. Garza didn’t have a standout run blocking season either, posting a pedestrian +0.8, but if De La Puente has plans to overtake Garza or step in if an injury occurs, he needs to return to form.
De La Puente also possesses athleticism that makes him one of the better screen-blocking centers in the league. He finished as the best at his position in 2012 and was one of the tops at the position last season. The ability to pull from the center or guard spot to get out in front of the ball carrier is obviously a very coveted skill.
In 2012, when De La Puente was at his best, current Bears offensive coordinator, Aaron Kromer, was the offensive line coach in New Orleans. Along with the title of OC, Kromer is also in charge of the offensive line in Chicago and could be the biggest asset in De La Puente returning to form this upcoming season.
Kromer steadied an offensive line this past season that has had trouble keeping Jay Cutler upright. Even with two rookie starters, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, the offensive line gave up only 12 sacks, which was tied for second-best in the NFL. In 2012, that number was 28, more than double.
It will be interesting to see if De La Puente pushes for a starting position this season. With Garza towards the end of his career and De La Puente having history with Kromer, it could be sooner rather than later. All in all, this looks like a great signing for Chicago that solidifies the depth at the inside positions on the offensive line.
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