Matt Nagy essentially took a set-it-and-forget-it approach with the Bears offensive line this offseason. That’s certainly a testament to the fact it returns all five starters, but also to the two seamlessly moving interior parts, new LG Cody Whitehair and C James Daniels.
Lest we forget, Nagy also has the luxury of one of the best in the business coaching up the unit in Harry Hiestand.
But unlike Nagy, who obviously has to oversee all three phases of his reigning NFC North title club, Hiestand’s singular focus is on his position group. And he’s talking regularly with Whitehair and Co. to ensure they know how good they can be.
“He [tells] us that we have something really special here with the guys that we have in our room,” Whitehair said of Hiestand’s message. “That’s what we’re striving for — to be the best in the NFL — and we just help our team win and be the best that we can be.”
No one knows yet exactly what the “best the Bears O-line can be” entails, as the next time we see Whitehair and Daniels next to one another in their natural positions in a regular-season game will be a first. Moreover, for the first time in three years, the unit’s most accomplished blocker was a daily practice participant in an offseason that didn’t include at least one medical procedure.
“There’s a line — your mental toughness, physical toughness line — and you get to push it forward a little bit every day that you show up and do everything that you’re supposed to do,” said RG Kyle Long, who has the same number of surgery scars — three — from last year alone as he does Pro Bowl honors. “I haven’t been able to move that line very far the last few years because of physical limitations, and it really took a toll on me mentally to not be able to be out there with the team.”
Long at least had good timing last season, returning from an eight-game absence because of an ankle injury for the regular-season finale and his first-ever playoff experience. And the timing of his improved health could be even better this offseason, the first of his Bears career with bona fide Super Bowl ambitions.
It seems likely that the Bears will need their O-line to be a little closer to special to fulfill their super goal. It struggled mightily to block the run last season (28th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards) but fared much better in pass protection (No. 7 in adjusted sack rank), albeit while benefiting from Mitch Trubisky’s mobility.
The fact that Chicago opted to re-sign RT Bobby Massie and redo Long’s contract to ensure his return, but replaced Jordan Howard indicates that Nagy and Ryan Pace found more fault in last season’s 27th-rated rushing attack in terms of yards per carry lied in the runner than the run blockers.
“That’s part of the business,” Whitehair said of Howard being traded in March to the Philadelphia Eagles. “We’re really excited with the guys we brought in.”
In top pick David Montgomery, the Bears think they’ve added the kind of creative back who better meshes with Matt Nagy’s scheme and incumbent mismatch specialist Tarik Cohen. Fellow rookie Kerrith Whyte and vet newcomer Mike Davis also appear to bring more to the party than last year’s reserves, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell.
Also part of the business Whitehair refers to is him being asked to relearn in a contract year a position he hasn’t played regularly since his second season at Kansas State in 2013. Whitehair dabbled at left guard as a rookie, but the full-time move could prove fruitful, as the NFL’s best guards have more earning power than the top centers. There’s also obvious risk as Whitehair comes off a Pro Bowl alternate campaign.
We asked him if his representatives at CAA sports were a part of the decision. After an initial pause, Whitehair opted for the diplomatic response.
“Yeah, you know … it is what it is,” he said. “I’m really excited about moving to guard and trying to help this team take the next step. Obviously it is a contract year, but I’m just taking it day by day and trying to do everything I can to help this team win.”
Whitehair has played more than 99 percent of the total reps on offense since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2016 and took every snap in all 17 games last season. Suffice to say, he's done everything he can for the team in previous seasons and will again in 2019. And it’s pretty easy to believe him with a potential extension on the horizon that his goal is to remain in Chicago.
“Absolutely,” he said of his desire to sign a long-term deal with the Bears. “What we have going on here is a great vibe and a great culture. So I hope everything works out.”