Despite inexperience, Whitehair gives offensive line best chance to be good

When Pro Football Focus’ preseason offensive line rankings came out on Tuesday and the Bears were ranked 30th out of 32, I wasn’t terribly surprised, given the youth and inexperience at several positions.

What does surprise me, however, is that national writers seem obsessed with the idea that new free agent signing Ted Larsen will open the year starting at left guard.

Personally, I fully expect Chicago’s opening day starter at left guard to be Cody Whitehair. If he isn’t, I think the Bears might have a problem.

And I’m not jumping the gun just because Whitehair impressed with his opportunities early in mini-camp when Larsen was absent due to injury and has, for the time being, risen to the top of the depth chart by default. After all, it’s hard to judge offensive lineman until the pads actually come on, so we won’t start knowing how good our second-round pick is until a few weeks from now.

I believe Whitehair should start because if everything we’ve seen and heard about him is true, he’s likely already better than Larsen could ever be.

I’ve mentioned this in previous writings, but it bears repeating given that Larsen is in direct competition with Whitehair to start at left guard: all the evidence indicates that Larsen is just not very good, and playing him for extended snaps would be unfortunate.

PFF itself ranked Larsen 72nd out of 81 qualified linemen last season, giving him a cumulative grade of 37.2 last season for his 10 starts with the Cardinals at right guard. That’s 37.2 out of 100. Having seen a few wacky grading scales in my time, I can say I’ve yet to see a curve that could make that grade not an “F”.

Even if you don’t subscribe much to PFF’s grades—Bruce Arians certainly didn’t seem to, as he benched last year’s first-round pick Jonathan Cooper for Larsen after allowing Cooper to take Larsen’s job—something like that is pretty glaring. Contrast that with Whitehair, who graded out as the top tackle in all of college football last season and was widely considered the best guard prospect coming out of this draft.

Sure, Larsen has plenty of experience, having started in 57 of the 86 games in which he’s played (including all 26 games he played in the last two seasons). Conventional wisdom would seem to indicate, in most cases, that you don’t want to throw rookies into the fire if you don’t have to, which is why the Bears started Will Montgomery last year instead of Hroniss Grasu to begin last season.

Obviously it didn’t work out as planned because Montgomery got injured, but it seems like they had the right idea given Grasu’s subsequently uneven performance when he got his chance to start.

If the Bears are committed to putting their best five offensive lineman on the field, however, it’s hard to believe Whitehair shouldn’t be on the field at left guard quickly. While there are concerns about his brute strength and arm length, his lauded technique makes him a far less raw prospect than Kyle Long was when he came into the league and a more NFL-ready player than Grasu was coming out of Oregon’s spread offense.

If he impresses the Bears’ coaching staff with his ability to execute the playbook and holds his own when training camp gets going in earnest, which seems to be the case so far, then I don’t want the Bears to wait to start Whitehair. Aside from our previous good fortune with highly drafted offensive guards, I’ll also take my chances with this coaching staff putting him in positions to succeed.

We’ll know more in a few weeks regarding what will happen with the left guard spot. Perhaps Larsen will return and show that his experience makes him more ready to start Week 1 than Whitehair, which is certainly not impossible. Maybe one of them gets forced out due to injury, making this discussion a moot point.

All things being equal, though, I’m confident in Whitehair’s ability to be the kind of immediately impactful player that Long and stud Dallas Cowboy guards La’el Collins and Zack Martin—an All-Pro with whom Whitehair is often compared—were on the interior. We all know that Larsen is no answer.

And if Whitehair’s ready to start right away, the Bears will field a young group of offensive linemen in that, while likely going through plenty of growing pains, could transform into something formidable if given time to gel. In particular, their collective athleticism would be very intriguing, given the run-heavy offense that the Bears are sure to employ under John Fox.

Maybe it won’t be pretty this year, but that’s all the more reason, in my mind, to see what Whitehair can do and if he is as good as the Bears hope. If he can’t get on the field, my instinct won’t be to get excited about Ted Larsen; it will be to wonder if the Bears might not have gotten they thought they were getting, which would be a sore blow to both their current and future plans.

The Bears’ offensive line likely won’t be great whether Whitehair starts most, or all, of this season or not. But with him in the lineup, I believe the Bears could at least be better than people think. Who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise us.

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