And to think that it happened at Family Fest.
Last August 6, in a non-contact injury, at Soldier Field, at FAMILY FEST, the future of the Bears offensive line took shape when then-starting center Hroniss Grasu tore his right ACL while running downfield to block on a screen pass.
A little more than a month before the start of the 2016 season, the Bears o-line was suddenly in tatters. Grasu was out for the year. Free agent-signee Ted Larsen and rookie Cody Whitehair would fight to replace him, with the other playing guard opposite Kyle Long.
For most of the preseason, that’s what happened. Larsen started at center with Whitehair at left guard. The rookie got some looks now and again at center. Folks — including our Sam Householder — were not impressed:
Let's hope Whitehair does not have to play center. Early returns are not good.— Sam Householder (@SamHouseholder) August 12, 2016
Conventional wisdom was Larsen remaining at center and Whitehair continuing to learn left guard. Instead, in a move that shocked just about everyone interested in professional football, the Packers released Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton eight days before Week 1.
The Bears scooped him up two days later, leading to the team’s next question at offensive line: with Pro Bowlers in Sitton and Long holding down the guard spots, who should start at center?
Our Lester Wiltfong had his answer:
Larsen may even be a better center right now at this very second, but I don’t care. Play the rookie immediately. Get his growing pains out of the way as soon as possible. If he struggles this week at practice with shotgun snaps, then keep Jay Cutler under center.
When the Bears were finally ready to take their first offensive snap of 2016, the rookie Whitehair delivered it. He played all but two snaps the whole season, becoming the first Bears center to start all 16 games since Roberto Garza in 2013.
What will 2017 hold for Whitehair?
My guess? His first Pro Bowl.
Age: 25 years old
Experience: Second season
Weight: 310 pounds
Contract and Salary Cap
Whitehair is in the second year of his rookie contract, a 4-year deal worth $4.2 million. Per Spotrac, he will make $642,026 in 2017, accounting for .56% of the team’s salary cap.
Reason for improvement in 2017
Along with natural improvement in his second season, Whitehair has an obvious reason for improvement: positional stability. After playing left tackle at Kansas State, he was drafted to play guard, spent his camp and preseason predominately at guard, and then found himself starting at center Week 1 — his first time playing the position full time.
Despite early rust, Whitehair grew better and better as the season wore on, and emerged as the team’s steadiest offensive lineman in 2016. The eye test tells us that, as do the numbers:
- Joined Charles Leno Jr. as the only two Bears o-linemen to start all 16 games
- Tied Ted Larsen on the Bears for the fewest sacks allowed (1.5) according to Lester’s Sack Watch, despite starting 16 games to Larsen’s 8
- Graded by PFF as best Bears o-lineman, and best Bears run-blocker
Whitehair now enters 2017 as the full time center, with an entire offseason to work on one position, and his Pro Bowl guards likely set to be back and healthy alongside him.
Reason for regression in 2017
Other than injuries, the only reason for regression would be a shift in positions. This is unlikely, but let’s say Grasu has an incredible camp, combined with a poor showing by one of the tackles. The Bears would have to at least consider moving Kyle Long to tackle, Whitehair to guard, and Grasu to center.
This is something the team probably does not want to do, although last month John Fox said he was “messing around” with swapping Sitton and Long. With the way the team has moved Long throughout his career, anything is possible, but it certainly would run counter to Whitehair’s development.
Final roster odds
Barring injury or a turn of events as stunning as the Gould-Sitton-Barth turn, Whitehair will start at center all season and compete for a Pro Bowl berth.