The question was finally asked.
During Matt Nagy’s presser two weeks ago, Brad Biggs asked it bluntly.
“What makes Juan Castillo better than Harry Hiestand?”
As delicately as the head coach tried to answer, the truth was just as blunt.
“Juan’s biggest strength is his ability to teach and reach his players,” Nagy said. “There’s going to be times when he chews their tails out and there’s going to be other times when he’s giving them nothing but love.”
Castillo has a long history of developing late-round picks in need of polish. Hiestand, while having a long history of taking four/five-star recruits and making them into terrific NFL prospects, never successfully developed a player once they were in the NFL. That lack of developmental prowess stood out particularly with James Daniels in 2019, a high second-round pick who could’ve been a first rounder if the draft weren’t stacked at the position in 2018. He’s long, athletic and, by all accounts, smart. Yet, hasn’t been improving.
It also stood out with Rashaad Coward last year. Coward looked decent when he was forced into the right guard position after an injury to Ted Larsen at the beginning of the season against the Vikings. Coward had the attitude and physical ability, but lacked experience. Week-by-week we should’ve seen growth, but he still was never able to take a measurable step.
The other players on the line – Charles Leno Jr., Cody Whitehair and Bobbie Massie – all played their best football for other line coaches. That was serious cause for concern when it comes to Hiestand and very likely the reason he was replaced.
The Bears spent seventh-round picks on two other players who – as Wood wrote three weeks ago — profile as the types who just could have success in the NFL. These are Castillo picks.
“Where (Castillo is) at the top is in these types of sessions we have and he’s teaching details of run game, details of play pass, details of movements, protections, the defense, what we’re looking at personnel why,” Nagy said. “I sense that the players are feeling that. That’s his strength.”
It isn’t just about coaching, though. The Bears added to the roster so they don’t have to wait on the likes of Coward or Daniels to get better.
There are pretty obvious reasons why the Bears were able to sign Germain Ifedi for dirt cheap, but there’s also a clear path to him becoming an effective player. The first step on that path is moving to guard, where his weaknesses can be hidden a bit more. There are numerous examples throughout the history of the league of players who didn’t perform well at tackle, but were able to excel at guard, and Ifedi has never looked comfortable playing on an island. Ifedi played well at guard as a rookie.
The big advantage Ifedi will bring over what the Bears had last year is that he is a proven people mover. According to Sharp Football, Seattle averaged 5.7 yards per carry running behind Ifedi at tackle in 2018 and 2019 and 5.5 yards per carry when he as at right guard in 2016. In 2020, the Bears averaged 2.3 yards per carry behind their right tackles and 3.7 behind their right guards.
The right tackle number still stands out, but it’s worth noting that Bobby Massie has been considered a good run-blocker in the past and had some injury issues in 2020. It also should be pointed out that, in order for a run to get to the right tackle, the right guard usually has to hold up, that simply wasn’t happening in 2019.
There are other factors — most notably quarterback play — that could also play into the running game improving, but it’s going to come down to two things: Better players and better coaching.
With Ifedi, the Bears have a player who is simply better at moving people out of the way than what they had last year. With Castillo, they have a coach with a proven track record of developing young players with potential.
Those moves aren’t sexy right now, but if and when the 2020 season kicks off, we should see the impact.