By Robert Zeglinski
A center in football is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line. The signal caller. The lynchpin to lean on in-game, in meetings, and off the field. The only player positively guaranteed to touch the ball every play, regardless of the play called. (A fact some rightfully cocky centers will remind you of fondly.) Center isn’t the most sexiest or most difficult of positions to play, even along the offensive line. But it holds a priority as to the success of a front wall. A center is the consummate glue guy of an offense, of which the entire operation would fall apart without him.
The Bears have never had much of any issue finding an answer at center.
In the 1980s, it was Jay Hilgenberg, a five-time All-Pro and one of the criminally least discussed players of his era. Then came Olin Kreutz, a symbol of an NFL center revival at the turn of the century. Kreutz was one of the first centers to be actively used as a puller and was summarily recognized for it. The six-time Pro Bowler may never make the Hall of Fame, but he’s one of the Bears’ best players of the last two decades.
Enter the modern Renaissance of the Bears and 26-year-old Cody Whitehair.
After three NFL seasons, no one will say Whitehair is the definitive best center in pro football. That subjective distinction belongs to the Eagles’ Jason Kelce for the time being. But after a 2018 Pro Bowl berth (as an alternate), Whitehair has proven he’s capable of helping the Bears’ offensive line soldier on as their leader. There’s always the possibility Whitehair is moved back to his college position of guard in the coming months, as the Bears discussed at the 2019 NFL owner’s meetings. That versatility in itself just makes Whitehair a more valuable commodity wherever he should play in the future.
Whitehair is entering the last year of his rookie contract. The Bears, for the foreseeable future, figure to be an NFC power player and high roller. Whitehair is a major piece of their plan, and it would behoove them to find a way to keep the quiet center slash guard happy.
Cody Whitehair, C
Career statistics: 48 straight starts to begin career, N/A
The most pressing remaining core issue for the cap-strapped Bears is keeping Whitehair around. It doesn’t matter if they shift him to guard (though they would have to pay him more in this event) or keep the veteran at center: A team in a title window can’t afford to let any above average to good starters walk away in the middle of it.
Not that there should be any danger of Whitehair leaving Chicago. He doesn’t play the most premium of positions and it’s typically much easier to negotiate contract extension with non-skill players than their sometimes diva counterparts. Offensive linemen, in true form to their roles, want appropriate security and stability when they can get it.
When was the last time you heard of any center, guard, or tackle throw a fit in negotiations with their incumbent team? The last time you heard of it, if you did, was probably the first time.
It’s instances like the Bears specifically clearing out roughy $11 million in cap space for 2019 with a restructure of Khalil Mack’s contract that set the table for nothing but positive, enlightening conversation with Whitehair. Not that there’s anything wrong with the movie glamor antics of a Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire. If that’s how a guy has to get paid, so be it. But I highly doubt Whitehair is yelling at the Bears or his agent to “show him the money” at any point.
Whitehair’s resume steady and reliable offensive lineman with versatility speaks for itself. As does his ripe age in the middle of a championship window. He doesn’t have eye-popping statistics to glean upon, if only because offensive line statistics aren’t really a thing.
Whitehair is only now entering his physical prime after having not missed a game to this stage in his career. He’s always possessed underrated athleticism on reach and pull blocks that’s allowed the Bears to add a bit of a panache to their running game. And he’s a solid pass protector that’s settled in well with good enough fundamentals to help shut down some of the NFL’s premier interior defensive lineman like the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox and Rams’ Aaron Donald. The latter of which is the most impressive for Whitehair as the game of football shifts toward an interior pass rush focus. Offenses need guys that can hold the middle well, and Whitehair’s one of the best.
The one issue Whitehair has had is occasional lapses with snaps. But even that problem quickly dissipated last season after he became comfortable with his responsibility. He might be more of a natural guard, but he can flourish as a center as necessary.
It’s not likely you ever see Whitehair profile as this dominant interior offensive force for the Bears, and that’s okay. He’s a solid and consistently available player of whom can wear multiple hats. He’s not the cream of the crop like Kelce, but he’s comfortably in that respectable second tier of centers and other respective interior offensive linemen. He owns the Bears’ offensive line meeting room, much like Kreutz did, and does his job at a high level. You can do much worse at one of the least pretty positions.
What has to be considered with Whitehair’s imminent extension is how the Bears choose to classify him. If he’s a center in their eyes, they won’t have to break the bank as much. Whitehair’s party will fight that notion if the Bears commit him a position switch sometime soon. But seeing as how most of Whitehair’s resume, those 48 starts to be exact, is at center: He doesn’t have much personal leverage.
In this situation, one gets the sense the Bears reach a compromise with Whitehair. They won’t pay him like a newly extended guard, but they’ll sprinkle in a little more so as to appease one of the most crucial pieces of their locker room if he ends up making a transition. This puts us in the realm of a forecasted four-year, $48 million ($25 million guaranteed) for Whitehair. On an average annual value basis, that would make Whitehair the NFL’s highest-paid center. His guaranteed money would be third-most. But remember he straddles the line of center and guard. A total sum $48 million deal with almost half guaranteed puts Whitehair squarely in the rough top 10 among all guards in pay. It gives him the happy medium he’s likely seeking as the Bears perennially play around with his versatility.
A center is valuable to a team’s success, especially when he can feature in multiple spots. Whitehair has been a part of the Bears’ long-term future ever since a stellar rookie year. If you trust a guy like Whitehair to touch the ball every play without screwing it up as the Bears have, you should have enough faith in him to offer him the security he’s earned.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.