The Chicago Bears stumbled upon a diamond in the rough with center Cody Whitehair.
Whitehair was a second-round pick in 2016 after a productive career at Kansas State where he played both at tackle and guard, but projected to be a fixture along the interior of the offensive line. But a season-ending injury to Hroniss Grasu in the preseason, and the signing of free agent Josh Sitton moved Whitehair to a new position. And the result of the move was a top grade among the NFL’s best centers – in his rookie season, no less.
All things considered, not bad for somebody who didn’t play center until Week 1 of the NFL season.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 15, 2017
Whitehair is in good company with Nick Mangold and Travis Frederick, a pair of sturdy linemen who anchor the middle of their respective teams offensive lines. If Whitehair can continue along a similar path, the Bears will be in good shape up the middle.
Further, if Whitehair can repeat his rookie season and be that impact offensive linemen in the years to come, he will not only go down as one of the Bears’ better draft picks in recent memory – but also one of the team’s best linemen.
Using Pro Football Focus’ grades as our guide, Whitehair’s 87.2 grade is the best for an offensive linemen since 2013. It’s not as if the Bears haven’t had quality linemen in recent years. Matt Slauson posted a grade of 80 or better in two of his three years in Chicago. Kyle Long has been well above average at guard and serviceable at right tackle. And if it wasn’t for Whitehair, Josh Sitton’s 86.2 grade would be the best among linemen who have put on a Bears jersey in recent years.
HOWEVER, there is an alarming trend in numbers as Whitehair, Sitton, Long, and Slauson all have one thing in common – they posted high grades as interior linemen. And while strength in the middle is welcome, the play by the team’s tackles has dragged down the rest of the group, marking a clear point of vulnerability on the offensive line.
Here is a short list of tackles and their grades on recent Bears teams:
- 2016: Bobby Massie (69.9), Charles Leno Jr. (70.8)
- 2015: Leno Jr. (46.1), Kyle Long (79.8)
- 2014: Jermon Bushrod (67.4), Jordan Mills (44.9)
- 2013: Bushrod (51.5), Mills (48.5)
The instability at tackle dates back further if you’re brave enough to dive deeper, with J’Marcus Webb posting grades of 31.0, 44.8, and 66.6 in 2010, 2011, and 2012, respectively.
Whitehair’s production at center helped spring fellow rookie Jordan Howard’s 1,000-yard rushing campaign, which culminated with a Pro Bowl appearance. But for the Bears to take the next step as an offensive unit, GM Ryan Pace needs to find players like Whitehead who can play tackle, too.