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Could Bears find their new center in 2024 NFL Draft?

WCG’s lead draft analyst breaks down some top center prospects the Bears should take early notice of.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Georgia at Missouri

The Bears have their starting center for the 2023 season in Cody Whitehair.

Whitehair has rotated back and forth from guard to center since joining the Bears in 2016, and this coming year will see him moving back to center for Chicago. The former Pro Bowler is one of the lone remaining players from the division-winning 2018 squad, but he turns 31 years old this July.

The Bears save roughly $9.1 million by releasing him after the 2023 season, and they would save about $10.2 million by deferring that extra $1.1 million cap hit to 2025 with a post-June 1 designation. A decision to cut Whitehair is a bit premature at this rate, as we haven’t even seen him take the field for the upcoming year. However, it is something that this Bears front office will have to keep in mind, seeing their preference towards a younger roster shown in the last two offseasons.

If the Bears do choose to move on from Whitehair after this year, the odds are their replacement isn’t currently on the roster. Lucas Patrick is hardly an upgrade at center, while Doug Kramer is, realistically, a sixth-round pick coming off a torn ACL who has no NFL experience. There’s a chance Ja’Tyre Carter can kick further inside to play center, but the odds are Chicago will have to search elsewhere for its future center.

Much will change between now and the 2024 NFL Draft, but as of now, the center class looks incredibly intriguing.

Sedrick Van Pran, Georgia

The most surprising returnee from Georgia’s national championship-winning team may have been Van Pran, who will be anchoring the Bulldogs’ offense in 2023.

A nasty blocker with evenly proportioned power throughout his frame, Van Pran packs a mean punch at the point of contact and plays with the intent to drive defenders into the dirt. It’s difficult for opponents to push the pocket against him because of his low pads, wide base and pure anchor strength. He showcased better quickness off the line of scrimmage in 2022, and as he continues to develop as a pure athlete, there’s no reason that Van Pran shouldn’t at least be a Day 2 pick.

Zach Frazier, West Virginia

Frazier was a four-time high school state wrestling champion in high school, and that background shows up in spades in his tape as a center for West Virginia.

Winning often with technique and strength, Frazier is a leverage master who consistently wins as the lower man in the trenches. His weight distribution and balance is fantastic, and his strike timing and placement allow him to consistently lock out defensive tackles from his chest. He’s an intelligent player with good spatial awareness who executes his alignments consistently. Though his athletic upside is rather average, he has tremendous tape and has the tools to be a long-term starter in the NFL.

Bryce Foster, Texas A&M

Foster suffered a season-ending injury in 2022 but dominated in 2021 as a true freshman, making him one of the more enticing offensive linemen to keep an eye on this year.

A two-sport athlete who also plays shot-put at Texas A&M, Foster has tremendous lower-body strength and offers good grip strength along the interior. The power in his hands is complemented by his strike placement and willingness to fight for inside leverage, and for a bigger center at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, he moves quite well laterally. His injury and inconsistencies with spatial awareness have him falling short of my top-graded center right now, but with another full season of strong play, there’s a good chance he’ll be the top players drafted at his position in 2024.

Drake Nugent, Michigan

Previously a team captain and Academic All-Pac-12 honoree at Stanford, Nugent heads to Michigan as one of the top centers in all of college football.

Size and length are weaknesses of Nugent’s game at 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, but he does a good job of working to overcome that with flexibility, athleticism and technique. He’s an agile blocker with good mobility in pass protection and explosiveness in his acceleration to the second level as a run blocker. He regularly wins with good pad level, weight distribution and accurate strike placement. Nugent is simply a quality football player who should be able to overcome subpar physical measurements to become a decent starter in the league.

Jackson Powers-Johnson, Oregon

Putting Powers-Johnson on this list of top centers is heavily based on projection, seeing as though he hasn’t been a full-time collegiate starter yet. However, his ability to play just about offensive line position and flashes of tremendous play make him a possible breakout star.

Powers-Johnson allowed just two pressures and no sacks in 181 pass-blocking reps in 2022. He has a dense frame with good raw anchor strength, and he packs a mean punch at the point of attack. He’s also quite a good athlete for an interior lineman, as he accelerates well off the line of scrimmage and showcases good lateral quickness on tape. Strike placement and weight distribution are areas of weakness for him, but with some more reps under his belt, he could push for Day 2 consideration.

Christian Haynes, UConn

Haynes started off as a guard at UConn, where he earned All-American recognition. Now, he prepares to make the switch over to center, which could make him an even more enticing prospect for the Bears.

I tabbed Haynes as one of my selections for the Bears in my most recent 2024 mock draft. Here’s what I had to say about him:

Haynes excelled at right guard for UConn last year and could’ve been drafted this year, but he returned to school for another year and will be switching over to center this season. The first Husky to earn All-American recognition since 2010, he is a quality athlete with nice burst off the line of scrimmage, as well as good hand placement, nice play strength and a mean streak at the point of attack. If he improves his pad level and discipline, he could be a long-term starter in the NFL.