Plenty of thought went into the Bears’ decision to flip-flop James Daniels and Cody Whitehair on the offensive line after Whitehair had his best season at center last year, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.
But line coach Harry Hiestand boiled down the move in simple terms.
“James is a natural center,” Hiestand said. “Cody became a center when he came to Chicago. James is more natural in there. It’s his best position. He can be special. It’s where he is most comfortable and Cody can do both.”
The switch gives the Bears the luxury of having an experienced backup center in the starting lineup as 44 of Whitehair’s 48 starts over the last three seasons have come at the position. He was at his best last year, a season after the Bears moved him around as injuries forced changes. Whitehair made two starts at left guard, 12 starts at center and two starts at right guard. Settling into one position last season, Whitehair worked through shotgun snapping issues over the summer and had a fine season, finishing with only three penalties after being called for 13 in his first two seasons.
Now, he’s at left guard, a position he likely would have played as a second-round pick in 2016 if the Bears had a better option at center. The switch is in the exploratory stage during OTAs but is not expected to be reversed.
“It just fits James,” Hiestand said. “Cody was forced to play center. All Cody wants to do is help the Bears win. It was a decision we made as a staff and as soon as we approached him about it, he was ready to go.”
Daniels, also a second-round pick, arrived last year with a glowing recommendation from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a former line coach in the NFL whose program routinely produces high-caliber linemen. Ferentz called Daniels “probably the most gifted center I have ever been around as far as the tools to be a center, including my six years in the NFL.” That makes it easy to understand why the Bears believe Daniels has the ability to become one of the NFL’s elite centers.
The challenge this spring is for Daniels to master communication with quarterback Mitch Trubisky. He’s making calls and checks at the line of scrimmage, which will take time.
“James, he’s very smart, so the transition’s been very easy for him so far,” Trubisky said. “I would say the only difference this year is that I’m finally hearing him talk. He didn’t talk much last year. So having him at center, we talk a lot more off the field and on the field as well. Hearing him make calls. Just that constant communication back and forth. It’s been great. … It comes easy to him and obviously he played it in college, so it’s been a natural switch and it’s been going really well.”
Daniels moves well for a center, so it’s possible the change will help the running game, especially when he works combination blocks and climbs to the next level. The Bears will get a better idea of that during training camp when the pads go on.
The switch has been seamless for Whitehair, who has more experience at guard than Daniels.
“They said we would try it out and that’s what we’re doing,” Whitehair said. “It’s been a smooth transition. Both James and I feel comfortable in those positions. We both have the same attitude.”