If rookie James Daniels is close to ready, time might be right for Bears to make him center

If the Bears are contemplating a move on their offensive line to slide rookie second-round pick James Daniels into the starting lineup at center, this is the week to do it.

After Saturday night’s 24-23 exhibition victory over the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, preparation shifts to what will be a mock game week. In advance of the Chiefs coming to Soldier Field next Saturday, the coaching staff will simulate, as best as possible, the work that goes into preparing for a regular-season game.

It also will be the exhibition game in which the starters get the most action, likely playing into the third quarter. So if Daniels is ready, or if the coaches believe he’s close to ready, the time to promote him is now so he can get some work with quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

It’s sure to be a topic of discussion, whether or not the Bears want to hear it, especially after a shotgun snap from Cody Whitehair went through Trubisky’s hands and led to a safety in the first quarter. That snap, however, was fine, and the quarterback admitted afterward he should have caught it.

READ MORE: Bears first-string offense has some good, bad and ugly in 24-23 exhibition win over Broncos »

Trubisky was on the field for a total of 26 snaps, not counting penalties. Nineteen plays were run from the shotgun, an indication of how prevalent that alignment will be in the new offense. Whitehair took a series with No. 2 quarterback Chase Daniel at the end of the second quarter — seven more plays, six from the shotgun. There weren’t any alarming snaps, although he did send one back at Trubisky’s ankles on a play that was blown dead by a penalty. The false start by Bobby Massie could have contributed to that.

Whitehair used a new snapping technique Saturday from the shotgun, something that is called the dead snap, holding the nose of the ball and almost flipping it back. It’s a departure from the traditional spiral snap.

“I was trying a little something different and it worked better for me,” Whitehair said. “Guys that are struggling go to that because for whatever reason you grip the ball a little bit better and you have a little bit more control over it. It’s what I tried and it ended up working out for me.”
Preseason: Bears 24, Broncos 23

Photos from the Bears-Broncos preseason game at Mile High Stadium on Aug. 18, 2018.

It’s akin to a pitcher changing his grip on a pitch and if this works, perhaps things will settle down for him. Whitehair said he worked on it the “past couple days” so with more time, he should become more proficient. You see the dead snap more at the college level.

Whitehair has been battling a case of the occasional bad snap. A high snap last week at Cincinnati short-circuited one of eight plays by the first unit. There have been too many — about one per practice, including Wednesday and Thursday during joint practices with the Broncos. Coach Matt Nagy has firmly backed Whitehair but also said the situation needs to be corrected.

It will be interesting to see if the Bears do anything in the week ahead. Promoting Daniels now would help avoid the kind of musical chairs the Bears have played on the offensive line the last few years, especially if they’re leaning on playing the Iowa product sooner rather than later.

Two years ago, Whitehair played left guard exclusively in preseason before the Bears signed Josh Sitton on the weekend of final cuts and shifted the then-rookie to center for the season opener. In 2015, Kyle Long was moved from right guard to right tackle after the preseason ended. For a unit that requires such continuity, the Bears have done more than their share of changing on the fly, something that becomes necessary when injuries strike.

Daniels, drafted 39th overall, is the center of the future. Is he also the center for right now?

“Cody knows I’ve got his back,” Trubisky said during the week. “Cody cares more about this team and this game than pretty much anybody. If you guys knew how much Cody loved this game, this team, there wouldn’t be any questions about it. So I’m not worried one bit.”

It’s not that Whitehair can’t snap. He was better, or at least more consistent, as a rookie in 2016 than when he started at all three interior positions last season. Maybe it’s a case of the yips. Maybe it’s just a rough patch that just happens to come as the team is ramping up for the Sept. 9 opener at Green Bay. Whatever the case, the situation has been magnified because Daniels was drafted as a center who also can play guard, not a guard who can move inside.

Listening to Trubisky, it sure sounds as if Whitehair has been pressing. He works hard and is a prideful guy. Moving him to left guard certainly wouldn’t be a demotion. He’s a building a block for the future of the offensive line.

The Bears at least have been preparing Daniels for the move. Since returning from the shoulder injury that kept him out of three practices and the preseason opener against the Ravens in Canton, Ohio, he’s worked exclusively at center. That’s after splitting time there and at left guard.

Even if Daniels is going to have some growing pains in the role, he will have veterans on each side of him. It’s not like Nagy is in a situation where it’s win or else. The coach has a five-year contract and a chance to grow his young players. The general manager got a new contract this offseason, so if the Bears think Daniels is close, it makes sense to make the move.

Maybe Whitehair has settled down, can improve upon his new dead snap and the Bears will stick with him. But eventually, you have to think Daniels is the man in the middle.


Twitter @BradBiggs

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