A misconception about offensive line position switches is that they’re simple. Shifting a behemoth away from a position he’s played for years takes more than a few days or weeks as you re-establish his foundation. There are such small intricacies to switching sides up front, let alone positions, that the transition can be rough.
To that end, you can select offensive linemen in the top rounds of the draft - particularly on the interior - and generally expect them to be impactful Day 1 starters. That’s part of the reason the Bears have invested two second round picks in Cody Whitehair and James Daniels in the last three years: they’re core pieces that are easier to develop than tackles due to responsibilities, and take less effort to do so.
That doesn’t mean the men in the middle are less susceptible to the dangers of a switch. If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you can’t teach a seasoned player everything at the snap of your fingers.
Which brings us to Chicago’s recent shuffling in the middle. You see the natural college center in Daniels as the Bears’ answer there. You also see the stellar, natural college guard with experience at center in Whitehair as the supposed answer at left guard. By that association and a rare correlation to causation, the Bears’ ideal offensive line would then feature that combination together rather than sticking with Whitehair at center and Daniels at guard.
Crucially in the midst of the summer’s tinkering, head coach Matt Nagy and offensive line guru Harry Hiestand don’t see the situation in the same way yet. Which with only a little over two weeks before the regular season, is troubling for continuity’s sake.
So what do the Bears see in Whitehair at center, and why won’t they make the move with Daniels?
Let’s unpack this Bears offensive line situation and determine courses of action before they visit the Packers in Week 1.
An overcommitment to the plan
When the Bears drafted Daniels in April, general manager Ryan Pace said the versatile 20-year-old would make the move to guard. He also maintained that for depth reasons, Daniels would “cross-train” at center. So far, based on Daniels exclusively getting snaps at center in recent camp weeks after starting at left guard, and now moving back to left guard in the latter stages of the preseason: the Bears have stuck to their guns.
Regardless of where his ideal position may be, why not let a rookie like Daniels get comfortable in one spot? Having an all-powerful Bruce Matthews-esque Swiss Army Knife offensive lineman takes care of depth - Pace has appreciated versatility in his tenure - but it’s not realistic to apply to every player as an interchangeable part.
Sometimes it’s better to just have a great front five, instead of one that’s flexible. Sometimes it’s optimal to be great at one or two positions, instead of adequate at multiple. Take special over fine any day.
This is where the Bears’ faith in Whitehair comes in. A player who has been their starting center for the last two years despite originally having been planned to play at guard, Whitehair presents a place of comfort. He’s a constant the Bears are reluctant to tinker with, and they’re right to do so with continuity questions.
The problem is the difference in quality of both seasons for Whitehair and responsibilities he’ll now be counted on in Matt Nagy’s more complicated offense.
As a rookie in 2016, Whitehair had one of the great seasons by a rookie center in the last decade. He stepped in on short notice for Hroniss Grasu after a torn ACL and was a force. Not a field-tilter (interior offensive linemen rarely are), but he anchored a surprisingly good offensive line.
As an NFL sophomore in 2017, due to and not by coincidence some positional shuffling, Whitehair occasionally struggled snapping the ball at center. That’ll be a problem in an offense like Nagy’s that usually works out of the shotgun. Whitehair also wasn’t as consistent with his blocking. This was mostly due to not letting him get acclimated in one spot. Moving forward and having him commit to center with an experienced coach like Hiestand would be a meaningful way to have him return to his 2016 level. Don’t mess with a creature of habit’s routine.
Yet, Whitehair’s struggles were still concerning enough to consider a move back to guard if the opportunity presented itself. An opportunity like Daniels’ presence and evident ability at center, for example. Staying the course is okay, but if you have a chance to progress, take it. Adaptability is just as, if not more important, as preset planning.
The Bears appear to have telegraphed Whitehair’s tenure at center, regardless of outside happenings with someone like Daniels. Their trust in Whitehair then makes sense to a degree. It’s rooted in belief in a rebound for Whitehair, and a lack of trust in a young Daniels. However, since they had a young Whitehair make the move to center on short notice, that makes that commitment shortsighted.
Trust or lack thereof
Trust is difficult to earn, and easy to lose in the NFL.
What speaks to Daniels’ maturity at this high level is that he isn’t bothered by the Bears moving him around. He knew coming in there’d be the possibility he was taken from center to guard and vice versa, and he was prepared. That’s part of why he’ll be a lynchpin for the Bears offense as already one of their top offensive linemen.
What Daniels’ admirable stance doesn’t do is make the Bears’ lack of quick effort and trust to get him ready with the No. 1’s - at center or guard - look any better.
If Whitehair is Hiestand’s answer at center, there’s no excuse not to have Daniels working at the No. 1 left guard as soon as possible. Eric Kush, for everything he brings as depth, is a stopgap. He’s not going to be in Chicago long term, and doesn’t fit into the Bears’ plans in the same way Daniels does. Kush is the perfect swing interior offensive lineman. If there was a player you’d want to be extra versatile, it’s that third man in Kush that features at guard and center.
The only true leg up Kush has over Daniels is experience. What experience cannot overcome is talent. Experience as a sole concept is overrated: look no further than Whitehair previously needing but a month to become the Bears’ center and excel. The best players are experienced and gifted. Taking experience (Kush) alone over gifted (Daniels) alone is not the way to build up a core, because the player that’s gifted only needs snaps to catch up in experience. The experienced player can never make up for what he doesn’t possess. He is what he is.
At this late stage of August, the easing in with Daniels at any position should be over. There’s no logical reason to have Kush starting: both in future and skill set. The Bears have too little time to work with before they visit the Packers to set an offensive line. Having Kush play over Daniels in the opener is more of a handicap than not having Daniels play at center. At least the latter has a semblance of reasoning behind it.
Tin-foil hats on
We arrive at the fun conspiracies that have minimal basis, but must be addressed. Disclaimer: I don’t buy most of what these ideas present as they’d be snippets of hilariously egregious negligence by Bears management through and through.
The first is that Trubisky has such an affinity for Whitehair, he refuses to give up on the center he’s worked with to this stage. Never mind that it isn’t a slight to say Whitehair is better at another position, Trubisky could build a similar relationship with Daniels in time. If the Bears legitimately let Trubisky have that much influence over this decision, with what could be seen as an inferior player snapping the ball to him, then they’d be in trouble. The Bears’ proposed version of “Shake N’ Bake” can live on.
The other thought is that NFL guards are on average paid more than centers. The top five centers in football make a minimum of $9 million and are maxed out by the Buccaneers’ Ryan Jensen at $10.5 million. The top five guards? They make a minimum of $11.25 million and are maxed out by the Cowboys’ Zack Martin at $14 million.
Money never lies: NFL organizations value guards more than centers.
With Whitehair entering the third year of his rookie contract signed in 2016, and being up for an extension soon, the Bears prefer he stay at center so as not to use more salary cap space on him. Another shortsighted concept that isn’t making a concerted effort to put the best players on the field.
Though, the latter part of that theory holds some credence.
If NFL organizations value guards more than centers on average, that would mean the Bears value the terrific athlete in Daniels and his ability at guard more than center in comparison to Whitehair. Some of the league’s elite pass rushers like the Rams’ Aaron Donald and Eagles’ Fletcher Cox play inside now. If he reaches his high ceiling, you’d rather have Daniels play against them more than Whitehair.
For all of the hysteria behind a non-switch, the Bears prefer their best athletes like Daniels play the more valuable role.
Learning from mistakes
We won’t understand what the Bears envision for their offensive line under Nagy and Hiestand until meaningful games. If they think Daniels isn’t ready to start, or isn’t their No. 1 center, they might well soon be proven correct. If they prefer continuity at one position with Whitehair, they might well soon be vindicated.
What is also a real possibility is the Bears making a position switch out of embarrassment. Because regardless of any financial parameters, this comes back to those shotgun snaps: something Whitehair hasn’t proven to be capable of consistently doing well. The simplest aspect of football that can end a play before any blocking or tackling occurs. A skill Whitehair has had so many issues with, he was forced to start using a new technique in late August.
What is that embarrassment? It’s humiliation unfortunately suffered in one of the first few weeks of the season after a poor shotgun snap by Whitehair that costs the Bears a close victory. Then making a center move only after they’ve taken the hit in the standings, and only then learning from their mistakes.
In recognition of such a scenario, whatever the Bears have brewing for their offensive line, they’d be best served to be fully corroborated.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski and contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.