At one point in his career, Chicago Bears left guard Cody Whitehair was on track to be one of the NFL’s best young offensive linemen. But despite starting all but two games in his six years in the league, he’s maxed out as a slightly above-average starter over the last few seasons. For a Bears team with an offensive line in flux, Whitehair’s veteran status and weekly availability have become much more valuable than his on-field ability.
Whitehair’s path to the starting left guard job has been a winding one. He played every rep of his rookie year at center. In 2017, he took snaps at center, left guard, and right guard. He moved back to center full-time in 2018, only to split time evenly between left guard and the pivot in 2019. It was more of the same in 2020 when Whitehair took nearly the same amount of snaps at center as he did at guard. Last year was his first season that focused solely on playing left guard, and he’s expected to resume that full-time role in 2022.
Perhaps Whitehair’s ceiling was lowered by two head coaches – John Fox and Matt Nagy – who couldn’t figure out how or where to play him. He hasn’t been given a chance to master one position, and while it’s extremely valuable to have positional versatility, it’s a hindrance to a player’s development if he doesn’t know where he’s going to line up year after year. Whitehair is proof of that.
The Bears’ projected offensive line in 2022 is full of question marks. Left tackle Larry Borom and right tackle Teven Jenkins are second-year players with upside but little experience. Center Lucas Patrick should provide stability in the middle of the line, but a vacancy remains at right guard.
Still, those questions haven’t deterred Whitehair from being excited about what lies ahead with Head Coach Matt Eberflus and General Manager Ryan Poles.
“We just had our minicamp this past week, our voluntary minicamp, and it was awesome,” Whitehair said on the Sports Krunch podcast. “What we got going on and the culture they’re building here, it makes me really excited. So far, so good. Great first impression.”
Cody Whitehair needs a bounce-back year in 2022
Whitehair’s rookie season set high expectations for his standard of play. He finished his first year with an 87.5 grade from Pro Football Focus, which remains the best score of his career. His 66.2 grade in 2021 was his worst, but the offense, in general, was a complete mess. Positive regression is expected in 2022 with a revamped offense and more structured playcalling.
“I think this offense is going to be really good for (Justin Fields) and he definitely fits this scheme very well,” Whitehair said. “So we’re really excited about where he’s at. We got to see a little glimpse of it last week and he handled everything really well. So we’re really excited to keep workign together and keep learning this offense.”
Whitehair signed a five-year, $51.25 million contract extension with the Bears in 2019 and has the third-highest annual average salary on Chicago’s roster. He needs a bounce-back year in 2022 to remain in the Bears’ plans; his dead-cap figure drops from more than $15 million in 2022 to just over $8 million in 2023, giving Poles an opportunity to move on next offseason if his play doesn’t improve.
Call it a hunch, but we could be setting up for Whitehair’s best year as a pro. State of mind matters – a lot – for NFL players, and Whitehair’s has been reset. The new coaching staff has him juiced up for what lies ahead, and for a player as talented as he is, that may be all he needs to get back to his rookie form.
If nothing else, Whitehair’s standing as the leader of the offensive line matters. It’s something that can’t be replaced easily. And with so much youth up front, keeping Whitehair around for the long haul is the right way to go, even if he never gets back to his 2016 form.