The Chicago Bears could save nearly $10 million in cap space if they decided to release veteran interior offensive lineman Cody Whitehair later this summer, but general manager Ryan Poles seems to have something else in mind.
Contrary to outside expectations, the Bears did not make a single addition to the center position in either free agency or the 2023 NFL draft, putting them in a situation where they now must find their 2023 starter from a returning group of players — and not even last year’s starter, Sam Mustipher, whom they did not retain as a restricted free agent.
Poles, however, hinted back in March that Whitehair could potentially move back to center — the position he played for the majority of his first five seasons — in 2023. He also reinforced that idea again during April 29’s post-draft press conference when ESPN’s Courtney Cronin asked him whether getting younger at center was a priority.
“For right now, I feel good with Cody and Lucas [Patrick] both as leaders and players,” Poles told reporters on April 29. “They’ve both played that position well in the past, so I think we’re in good shape there. And obviously, that’s my job is to always look forward and add competition at certain positions and we’ll continue to do that.”
Return to Center Could be Good for Cody Whitehair
Whitehair has delivered more good than bad over his seven seasons as a starter on the Bears’ offensive line, but the past two seasons have seen him on the decline. According to Pro Football Focus, he turned in two of the three lowest-graded seasons of his career in 2021 and 2022, giving up a career-high four sacks in each of them. That’s especially bad for 2022 given he played a career-low 661 offensive snaps due to an injury.
A move back to center could do Whitehair some good, though, when you consider that his rough years in 2021 and 2022 were also the only two seasons in which the Bears asked him to play exclusively at left guard.
Whitehair has technically played more snaps at center (3,840) than left guard (2,778) throughout his career. He was also named a Pro Bowler in 2018 after giving up zero sacks, zero quarterback hits and just 11 pressures on the year, meaning he has good experience as opposed to just space-filling experience. With the necessary tools already built-in with Whitehair, the Bears may understandably feel that his veteran presence gives them an edge as they prepare for a crucial year in Justin Fields’ development.
Bears Also Comfortable With Lucas Patrick’s Outlook
Poles also mentioned Patrick’s name when discussing the center position, and while it might come as a surprise to Bears fans who feel like they never got a chance to get fully acquainted with him, it is important to understand that Patrick has a solid chance of being able to beat out Whitehair for the center job heading into the 2023 season.
Prior to arriving in Chicago last offseason, Patrick was a versatile glue guy for the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line who played 958 total snaps at the center position for them. He was asked to step up as their starting center in 2021 after then-rookie Josh Myers went down with a significant knee injury and played admirably for their 13-4 squad, drawing praise from quarterback Aaron Rodgers along the way. He also knows Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and his system well from those days in Green Bay.
Unfortunately, Patrick never got a fair shake at the job during his first season with the Bears in 2022. While they had brought him in to be their new center, he broke his hand just days into training camp and was forced to wear a cast for a few months. It didn’t totally keep him off the field, but it did prevent him from being able to snap the ball until he was finally cleared to do so again in late October. Patrick then suffered a season-ending toe injury just 10 snaps into his debut as the Bears’ starting center.
There are more concerns — and less of a proven track record — with Patrick than with Whitehair, but if he can return healthy and stay that way, he might just beat out the vet.