Even as the Chicago Bears embark on a quest to bring their offense into the 21st century, one old-school football axiom still holds true. The key to their growth and success lies on the offensive line.
That’s really the story of any football team. No matter how many playmakers you have or how creative your scheme is, it always comes down to those big boys in the trenches.
Given all the moves GM Ryan Pace made this offseason to help quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s development, it’s even more imperative that head coach Matt Nagy and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand find the best combination to protect their young QB.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we know that Charles Leno and Bobby Massie have locked down the starting left and right tackle spots. While neither is top-tier at their position, they haven’t done enough to lose their jobs yet. Kyle Long, a three-time Pro-Bowler, is healthy and expected to man his spot at right guard.
However, things get murky at center and left guard. Cody Whitehair, Eric Kush and rookie James Daniels are each fighting to plug either hole.
We know Whitehair will start at one of these spots. The third-year lineman has manned the center spot through two seasons and been an exceptional blocker. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked fifth in run block grade last year and sixth his rookie year.
But Whitehair has struggled with shotgun snaps and exchanges under center are concerning. He dealt with the issue last season, and his errant snaps were on display in the Bears second preseason game Aug. 9 against the Cincinnati Bengals. There also have been various reports documenting his struggles throughout camp, including as recently as Thursday during a joint practice with the Denver Broncos.
Still, Nagy seems hell-bent on keeping Whitehair at center. Unless the Bears are exercising some gamesmanship by tricking the Green Bay Packers prior to their Week 1 matchup, it’s likely they want to stop juggling him around.
He was drafted out of Kansas State in 2016 to play left guard but was pressed into the center spot following an injury to Hroniss Grasu and the last-minute signing of Josh Sitton. In 2017, former head coach John Fox kept shifting him from center to guard throughout training camp and occasionally during the regular season when injuries mounted on the interior of the line.
Whitehair admitted that moving around hurt his play, so giving him some stability makes sense. However, the Bears can’t afford to have a high number of botched QB-center exchanges. Struggling with snaps not only blows up a play completely, but it also can throw off a quarterback’s timing. That’s not something you want a second-year quarterback like Trubisky to deal with frequently.
The answer to the center spot could be Daniels, who played the position at Iowa and has performed well in both camp and two preseason games. What’s puzzling is that the Bears were very adamant about labeling him a guard immediately following the draft.
Yet, Daniels is getting second-team reps at center and almost none at guard. In fact, veteran Eric Kush still is pegged as the starting left guard. Daniels’ skills and draft stock would make him a logical starter out of the gate. Kush is solid but seems best suited as a super-sub.
So why are the Bears so hesitant to start Daniels and Whitehair at the positions they’re most comfortable at?
Maybe Daniels’ youth is a factor. The rookie turns 21 on Sept. 13, which is just four days after the season opener. The center position can be overwhelming for any rookie lineman, especially for someone as young as Daniels. But based off the reports out of camp and the limited preseason action, it doesn’t seem like the role would be too difficult for Daniels.
Given Hiestand’s resume as an offensive line coach, it’s hard to argue with any combination the Bears trot onto the field for the opener. But as things currently stand, the best starting combination would feature Daniels at center and Whitehair at left guard.
If Daniels isn’t ready to make pre-snap reads on the pro level, Whitehair can do the job from the left guard spot. That would make things simple for the rookie, allowing him to just snap the ball and block.
No matter what combination the Bears use this year, they have to make sure it’s the best possible one. The entire offense and Trubisky depend on it.