NFL free agency will be here before we know it, and the Chicago Bears have plenty of players hitting the market. From key starters to valuable reserves, general manager Ryan Poles will have to make important decisions about who to bring back.
Here at Bears Wire, we go through each individual player and analyze their performance in 2022 and whether or not they fit into the Bears’ long-term plans.
Next up is center Sam Mustipher, who ended up playing a much bigger role than first expected. But after another down year, will the Bears finally let him go?
Chicago Bears center Sam Mustipher (67) handles the ball at the line of scrimmage during an NFL preseason football game against the Cleveland Browns, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Cleveland. The Bears won 21-20. (AP Photo/David Richard)
2 sacks, 4 hits, 14 hurries, 20 pressures, 3 penalties (17 games)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – DECEMBER 24: Sam Mustipher #67 of the Chicago Bears passes the ball to Justin Fields #1 during the first quarter of the game against the Buffalo Bills at Soldier Field on December 24, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
When the Bears arrived at training camp last offseason, it looked like Mustipher’s days in navy and orange might be numbered. The team invested in the center position in free agency, signing veteran Lucas Patrick and drafting Doug Kramer from Illinois as a developmental player. But injuries intervened and Mustipher suddenly became the last man standing.
Patrick suffered a broken thumb that kept him out for most of training camp, and Kramer was out for the season due to an injury to Lisfranc. This allowed Mustipher to regain the starting center position, a spot he has held since the end of 2020.
Despite struggling throughout the 2021 season, Mustipher started all 17 games and that was essentially the recipe for 2022. Mustipher was a fixture for most of the first two months of the season, but he remained the center even after Patrick was deemed healthy for shooting. That finally changed in Week 7 when he sat on the bench in place of Patrick against the New England Patriots. But after just a few series, Mustipher returned when Patrick was out and was later lost for a year with a foot injury.
Not only did Mustipher have trouble protecting the quarterback, but he also had a tendency to miss shots. Mustipher and Justin Fields sometimes had trouble finding the same page, with shots coming either too low, too high or too early. The only good news? Mustipher finished with a higher PFF grade in 2022 (63.4) than he did in 2021 (51.0).
Positional needs: High
Chicago Bears guard Lucas Patrick (62) celebrates the Bears’ touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)
Last offseason, the center position was one of the most glaring needs of the Bears offense. Nothing has changed this offseason. Patrick is still signed for one more season, but given his injury and the fact that the team was reluctant to move him back to center once his thumb was healthy, would he be a huge upgrade? If the Bears cut Patrick, they would only eat $1.48 million while saving $3.9 million.
As for Kramer, not much has been revealed since his injury. While he’ll be someone to watch in the offseason, it’s doubtful he’d factor into a starting position, and he’ll more than likely be fighting for a roster spot.
The Bears need someone who can not only protect Fields inside the line, but also someone who can communicate effectively with him and the other players up front. It seemed as if Patrick had the necessary skills to perform those tasks and may still be able to. But there is doubt beyond his 2022 season. Don’t be surprised to see the Bears take another swing at finding their center of the future this offseason.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – AUGUST 18: Sam Mustipher #67 of the Chicago Bears looks on in the second half during the preseason game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Chicago Bears at Lumen Field on August 18, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Most Bears fans want to see Mustipher hit the road after his terrible play the last few years. But he still has value as a backup inside linebacker on a team that has seen too many injuries at center and linebacker. Mustipher is a restricted free agent, meaning the Bears can offer him and have a chance to match the offer if another team tries to sign him. His game may not be great, but he’s durable and that’s important in the NFL.
If the Bears decide to let Patrick go and go after another center, whether it’s through free agency or the draft, they’ll need a backup, and the jury is still out on Kramer. Mustipher knows about this offense and would replace him nicely. The problem arises if the pinch turns into a full season, as happened in 2022.
2023 free agency profiles
We highlight the Bears’ top free agents who will hit the open market in March: