One of the greatest underdog stories in Chicago Bears history took place back in the 1990s. Undrafted defensive tackle James Williams was looking like a long shot to make the roster. So his coaches came to him with a proposition. Would he consider moving to offensive tackle where they thought he might have a shot and could help an area of need? The man knows as “Big Cat” jumped at the chance. A year and a half later in 1994, he was their starting right tackle.
Williams went on to a Pro Bowl in 2001. It was a great rags-to-riches story for the young man who proved hard work and a willingness to change can take a man far. That’s the funny thing about sports. Things tend to repeat themselves. Fifteen years after Williams left the game in 2003, the Bears are conducting the exact same experiment all over again.
Earlier this year before the start of training camp, head coach Matt Nagy approached former Bears undrafted free agent Rashaad Coward with a request. Would he consider moving from defensive line to offensive tackle? Like Williams so long ago, Coward eagerly jumped at the opportunity. Anything for a chance to make the roster and play.
Chicago Bears starting to show they’re serious about Coward
The first inclination that the Bears might be more invested in this experiment than people thought came in the Hall of Fame game. Not only did the second-year man start the game at right tackle. He stayed there for all four quarters. It’s apparent the team was trying to get him as many snaps as possible, get him experience. All things considered? He didn’t do half bad.
— Draft Dr. Phil (@FulphilO) August 3, 2018
Kevin Fishbain of The Athletic interviewed Coward about the transition and how it’s been an eye-opening experience. It was when he spoke to the tackle’s former college coach Bobby Wilder at Old Dominion. It turns out that had the circumstances been better, he would’ve played Coward on the offensive line from the start.
“We just didn’t have enough quality players that year to play the schedule, so Rashaad had to play right away as a true freshman and we did not have enough defensive linemen. But we all felt that he would’ve been better off in his college career if he could’ve played offensive line. But he wanted to play defensive line, we needed him at defensive line and he was an outstanding college D-lineman.”
It didn’t end there. Knowing that NFL scouts were in attendance during extra bowl practices a year ago, Wilder decided to give Coward some snaps at right tackle. This would hopefully increase the odds of his young player getting picked up by a team. By the end of the session even he was taken aback by what he saw.
“Right from the start, and when I’m watching him bend and play the position I’m thinking, my goodness,” he said. “He probably would have been drafted in the upper half of the draft if we would have had him playing O-line the entire time.”
Since then there have been no signs the Bears are ending the experiment
If anything they’re pushing harder to see where it leads. Coward is a unique physical specimen. He’s an athlete but also big with long arms. Those are vital elements to playing tackle in the NFL. Just imagine that. Imagine if the Bears replaced Bobby Massie, who is a free agent next year, with a former undrafted player like Coward at right tackle. Never mind Charles Leno, a former seventh round choice on the other side.
That sort of thing just doesn’t happen in this league. Teams almost always need first round second round picks on the edges to have a chance of building a strong line. Except one must go back to Williams for a reminder that good blockers can be found almost anywhere. It merely comes down to having a vision for them and providing an opportunity. Coward got his and isn’t taking it for granted.