Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace traded back twice during the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, netting two extra fourth-round picks in the process.
Pace then landed Kansas State offensive lineman Cody Whitehair with the 56th pick in the draft.
Looking back, it was shrewd maneuvering by Pace to acquire two extra mid-round picks and then still land one of the top offensive linemen in the draft.
Whitehair played guard and tackle for the Wildcats, starting at left tackle his final two collegiate seasons. The Bears felt he was better suited along the interior and played him mainly at guard, as well as some center, throughout off-season activities and training camp.
When Hroniss Grasu was lost for the year during the preseason, Whitehair was inserted as the team's starting center, a position he had never before played. He settled into his new role immediately, which caught the eye of the coaching staff.
“Cody Whitehair has adapted," John Fox said late in the season. "We started off with him at guard. He jumped right in to center. The fact that he’s even a rookie is pretty incredible."
Center is not a glory position in the NFL, where most of your work goes unnoticed. Yet for the astute observer, Whitehair was by far the Bears' most consistent offensive lineman all season.
“Anytime a rookie has to play the center position there’s going to be a lot of growth in those first eight games or so and he’s definitely shown that," Josh Sitton said in December. "But I think he’s played well from the beginning. He’s a smart kid. He’s strong, he’s athletic. He understands football. But he’s come a long way. He’s done a nice job.”
In terms of pure athleticism, Whitehair is on par with Kyle Long, who is arguably the most athletic offensive linemen in the league. Whitehair gets down the line in a hurry and packs a pop. His timing on double teams at the point of attack was solid all season, demonstrating great feel for when to clear for the linebacker.
In a phone booth, Whitehair showed great balance, footwork, body positioning and leverage.
At the second level, Whitehair really shined. His awareness, agility and speed made him a weapon on downfield blocks, showing a clear understanding of proper angles of attack to cutoff backside pursuit, particularly on screen passes, where he was exceptional.
In pass protection, Whitehair was a rock. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the 4th highest pass-block grade of any player at his position, while he graded 6th overall among centers and 9th among rookies at every position.
In terms of pure skill set, Whitehair has it all, yet it's his maturity and mental fortitude that impressed his coaches and teammates.
"I saw a guy when he first showed up, I was like, he can pretty much start a tractor and lift hay bales into a tractor and that’s it," Kyle Long said last week. "Now he’s flourished into one of the best centers in the league, and he’s a rookie. He’s wise beyond his years. He’s very, very, very calm and collected. He asks the right questions when he needs to. He’s not afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked."
Playing alongside two Pro Bowl guards helped him develop rapidly but even after Sitton was banged up and Long went on IR, Whitehair continued to improve.
"We don't talk about him enough, because he's a really good football player." offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. "Just the biggest thing that he's improved on is command. You know, when you step in there and you've got two Pro Bowl guard playing next to you and now it's your obligation to make the Mike point, to make the line calls and he's done a really good job with that stuff. He's getting better every week with that stuff. We're really excited abut where his career's going to take him."
Going forward, Whitehair gives the Bears much needed flexibility up front. He can clearly play along the interior and could even swing outside to tackle in a pinch.
"I view Hroniss more of a center-only. If he comes back, that’d be the position he’s competing for," said Pace. "If Hroniss is playing like a solid NFL starting center and gets to that level, which I think he can, that’s a good problem. We have flexibility with other guys. Cody Whitehair is a flexible guy, and Kyle is, too. We’ll see how it shakes out."
Whitehair is a legitimate, long-term NFL starting offensive lineman. Despite being a rookie this year, he was the rock around which Chicago's front five revolved, no matter who was in the starting lineup.
Whitehair played all 16 games his first year and never dealt with any significant injuries.
Running up the middle behind Whitehair, the Bears averaged 4.86 yards per carry, which was 6th best in the NFL. The offensive line also ranked 10th best in the league in pressure rate (20.1 percent), according to Football Outsiders.
With Whitehair, the Bears have a multi-faceted player who showed competence in every phase of the game, and he should only get better as his confidence grows.
Whitehair is a future Pro Bowler who, alongside Long, should create stability along the offensive line for potentially the next decade.