Should Cody Whitehair start Game 1 at Center?
Josh Sitton may have taken over his accustomed spot at left guard for the Chicago Bears, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Cody Whitehair should go to the bench just yet.
Though Whitehair is currently listed behind veteran Ted Larsen for the starting spot at center, having played left guard all preseason prior to Sitton’s arrival, talk has been steadily building that perhaps the rookie’s time as a backup won’t last until Sunday.
The Chicago Tribune’s Rich Campbell said on 670 The Score’s “Mully and Hanley” show earlier this week that he believes Whitehair will start against the Texans over Larsen despite being listed behind the veteran on the depth chart.
If you want to read into things further, Kyle Long, who was thrown into the fire himself as a rookie in 2013, likes Whitehair’s chances to succeed early on at his new position because of his supporting cast. Here’s what he had to say, via ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson:
“With him [Sitton] being new in the offense, he understands football, and I’m starting to understand football, and to have that with Cody inside I think will speed him up a lot and his confidence will be up. Cody’s a real talented guy and he’s learning every day and I’m seeing him make improvement every day, so it’s not something I’m worried about but I think it is a good spot for him.”
Count me as part of the contingent that would rather have had Sitton start at center and Whitehair stay at left guard, at least for this year, so as not to ruin the momentum he had been building there. Of course, given how much Sitton just got paid and how much time he’ll be around, it ultimately makes sense that he would play at his preferred position of left guard and that Whitehair would make the move instead of him.
Head coach John Fox certainly seems to believe that not only is Whitehair talented and mature enough to make the switch quickly despite limited reps, but that this position switch might even be preferred. As written by Adam Jahns of the Sun-Times:
“Right now, looking at it, I think it’s his best position. Unfortunately, prior to the acquisition of Josh, we weren’t real fluid to put him there a whole lot, but he has had reps…He understands the game. He plays it kind of beyond his years, as far as experience-wise.”
After getting past the initial oddity of that seemingly random proclamation—followed by thoughts of “why didn’t you just play him there in the first place?”—I not only see the logic in the move but even think the Bears shouldn’t bother redshirting the rookie lineman the first few games.
Even with Larsen’s experience along the interior line and his ability to play center, the Bears’ best version of their offensive line—both Week 1 against J.J. Watt and the Texans and beyond—requires Whitehair to be on the field.
He’s more athletic than Larsen or current practice-squad member/former #2 center Cornelius Edison and can move in space in a way that neither can, which was incredibly apparent throughout the preseason. Per Jahns’ Monday story, Long brought up Whitehair’s ability in that department, saying that “a lot of our stuff is based on running and getting out in space, and he’s a guy that does that well.”
And when his technique is sound and he is able to cleanly engage his man with his hands, he’s proven to be formidable. In short, Whitehair’s just a better player and already better suited to the Bears’ schemes. For all Larsen’s experience, putting him on the field will by default handicap what Chicago wants to do offensively.
While I, like many people, wasn’t impressed with Whitehair’s play at center in the first preseason game against the Broncos, I believe that putting him between Sitton and Long can help compensate for his inexperience at the position.
For one, the two senior guards—as well as Jay Cutler—can lighten the load on the rookie by aiding with line calls and protection adjustments until he is ready to become more vocal himself. There is some precedent for this as, just last year, Matt Slauson actually continued making the majority of line calls from left guard after Hroniss Grasu took over at center midway through the season.
Long also noted that when he was a rookie, then-center Roberto Garza, a seasoned veteran, “knew everything” and was able to help him learn on the fly. In the same breath, he noted: “That’s how Josh Sitton is.”
From an execution standpoint, Sitton and Long can lend help to Whitehair with double-teams both on passing downs and inside runs—especially against the likes of Watt—while Whitehair gives the Bears flexibility to run the outside zones and toss sweeps that Dowell Loggains enjoyed dialing up for Jeremy Langford and co. this preseason.
Throw in the fact that the Bears hired the absolute perfect mentor for Whitehair in the form of former Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, and it looks like all the pieces are in place for him to ascend almost immediately to fill in as the starter.
#Bears have hired Kevin Mawae as a consultant for season. He was with team in camp/preseason. Will help with offense.
— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) September 7, 2016
There’s no way that the Bears knew that Sitton was going to be available back in the offseason when they drafted Whitehair in the second round and subsequently released Slauson in an effort to create a faster, more athletic offensive line. With his acquisition, the Bears’ vision for their offensive line is now far more complete than they could’ve imagined going into the season.
And with that knowledge comes increased expectations. If the Bears want to meet them, they’ll field their best offensive line from the get-go, and that means Cody Whitehair needs to be the starting center despite his inexperience. Given how loosely the Bears stuck to the depth chart in the preseason, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this by Sunday.