For the last couple of seasons, the Chicago Bears have had a problem at one of the most important parts of the offensive line: the center position. During free agency at the start of Ryan Poles' tenure, the team signed former Green Bay center/guard Lucas Patrick to fill that situation, but because of injuries to both Patrick and others along the line, their starter ended up being former UDFA Sam Mustipher, who just couldn't get the job done.
In 2023, Patrick started several games, but also, because of injuries, veteran Cody Whitehair had to move from guard back to his original center spot to take care of the need. In the end, neither was/is good enough. Going forward, Patrick is now out of contract, and it's a good bet that Whitehair will not be with the team in 2024.
With that being said, who will main the center position for 2024?
Many fans feel that the Bears should just draft a center high in the upcoming Draft and let whoever that person is become the long-term answer at the position. That, though, is easier said than done.
While the center position doesn't get the notoriety of the tackle spots, it still is the most important position along the line. Why? In most cases, the center is the glue of the Oline, the man who leads the unit and makes the line calls. He not only has to be physically skilled to play the position but also has to be astute enough to make the calls.
For most of my career in the League, the clubs I worked for had outstanding centers. In my 17 seasons with the New York Giants, much of that time, the center was Bart Oates, followed by Brain Williams. When I came to the Bears, Olin Kruetz, who will someday be in the Hall of Fame, was the leader of the Oline and one of the best centers I have been around. Ten years ago, I was with the Philadelphia, who had Jason Kelce, who, like Kruetz, is a future Hall of Famer. Basically, all my career, I have been around outstanding center play, so I know how important the position is to the success of the offensive line.
This spring, the Bears have two options for filling the center position. They can go out and sign a veteran free agent or draft one. It's my opinion that signing a veteran free agent is the best move for the Bears in the near term. Why? The Bears' offensive line is, for the most part, a young group. The most experienced player is right guard Nate Davis, who probably had his worst season as a pro in 2023.
It's fair to give Davis a pass, as he went through some very difficult times with the passing of his mother late in training camp. That obviously affected his play, as her sickness caused Nate to miss much practice time. It was also Nate's first year playing in the Shanahan/McVay outside zone blocking scheme. I expect that Davis will bounce back with a strong season in '24.
The other guard is Teven Jenkins, who has the talent to be one of the better guards in all of football but has had durability concerns, which has caused him to miss time in each of his first three seasons. So, due to circumstances, neither Davis nor Jenkins is really the person best suited to make line calls if a rookie is starting at center.
At this time, we don't know exactly what centers will be available in free agency. The best center who may hit free agency is Miami's Connor Williams, but Willimas tore his ACL late in the season, and it's a good bet that he will miss about half of the 2024 NFL season, if not more.
Two veterans who don't have "big" names but are very efficient and will more than likely hit free agency are Seattle's Evan Brown and Tennessee's Aaron Brewer. Neither is close to being a household name, but a review of the game tape shows that both would be a considerable upgrade over Patrick.
Brown has been in the League since 2018 and has come on the last three years at Detroit and Seattle. He has 40 starts over the last three seasons, with 16 of those starts coming in 2023 in Seattle under new Offensive Coordinator Shane Waldron. Having played for Waldron means he is already very familiar with the scheme and the calls.
At 6030 – 320, Brown is bigger, stronger, and more athletic than Patrick. He will never be a Pro Bowl player, but he is the type of player that teams win with in the NFL.
Brewer, like Brown, is a former UDFA and has started the last two seasons at Tennessee. In 2022, he lined up next to Nate Davis in one of the better run-blocking lines in all of the NFL. Brewer doesn't have Brown's size at 6020 – 295, but he is very strong and athletic. Of the two, my preference would be Brown because of his experience with Waldron, but Brewer is younger and may have more long-term upside.
To Draft a center can be risky. There are some quality centers in this Draft, and I will get to them at a later time, but are any of them ready to step in and be the leader of the Oline? It's putting a lot of pressure on a rookie to ask him to do what a center has to do. If the Bears had a more veteran group, it would be a different story because the vets could handle the calls, but as I mentioned above, the Bears aren't in that situation.
Another potential problem with drafting a center is whether he can play more than one position. It's imperative that most interior offensive linemen be able to play two positions. If a rookie center doesn't become the starter and can't play guard, he won't be dressing on Gameday. Most clubs dress seven offensive linemen on Sunday, with the two backups being able to play center/guard and both tackle positions. A center only will not be dressing as he lacks position versatility. That is the problem with former Bears draft pick Doug Kramer. Kramer can get the team out of a game at center, but he can't play guard.
What is interesting about some of the top centers in this Draft is that all but one have experience playing both center and guard. That makes them more valuable from the get-go.
Oregon's Jackson Powers-Johnson, who is perhaps the best center in this Draft, has considerable experience as a starting guard. The same holds true for Arkansas's Beaux Limmer and West Virginia's Zach Frazier. Georgia's Sedrick Van Pran has only played at center while in college, but he is easily athletic enough to play guard if needed.
With Free Agency beginning in about seven weeks, we will know exactly what the Bears plan is. If they sign a center in the opening days of Free Agency, they will unlikely be Drafting a center early.
My bet is that the Bears go the veteran free agency route.