The Bears have a high-class problem.
For all of the team’s issues on the offensive line in recent seasons – and it still remains unsettled at the tackle positions, although they’ve certainly upgraded their options – they suddenly find themselves loaded at the guard and center positions and now have to work to ensure they end up with the five best guys in the starting lineup.
Stuck literally in the middle of it all is presumptive starting center Sam Mustipher, who spoke to the media Wednesday about the urgency of putting the right group together.
“Offensive line is a unique position in that five guys need to be on the same page on every single snap,” Mustipher said. “So any five who get the opportunity to work together as a unit and just grow that cohesion, it takes reps, it takes plays, it takes a lot of work, a lot of time.
“So there’s a lot of time and effort we put into building relationships and building trust within the unit so that we’re seeing things through one set of eyes.”
There is no debate that Cody Whitehair and James Daniels are the Bears’ two best offensive linemen regardless of position, with both slated to be the starting guards this season. But it is ironic that Whitehair has played his best football in what is now Mustipher’s center spot, and it also is recognized by many accomplished analysts that center projects as Daniels’ best spot too.
Several evaluators I respect most have told me they believe Daniels will be a very good guard, but that he could be a perennial All-Pro at center.
Daniels talked shortly before his Week 5 season-ending injury last year about the constant debate over where he fits best, but hadn’t been faced with the questions again until this week because of the injury.
“I mean, the best [part] has been not answering, like, the center-guard questions,” Daniels said Wednesday. “I mean, every time I interviewed with the media, I always got those questions. It’s just annoying to constantly have to explain myself and answer the questions constantly. That’s the first thing I like [about] playing one position.”
Notice Daniels is careful not to indicate which he prefers; he’s just tired of the conversation.
It’s impossible not to pull for Mustipher. He’s an incredibly hardworking, well-spoken, extremely bright student of the game. He’s a natural leader and has worked his butt off to claim the job.
“I’ve always had the mindset that I was going to go into an offseason preparing to play football,” Mustipher said. “Whether that be on the practice squad, whether that be on the active roster, whether that be as a starting center, each offseason I prepare with that exact mindset, and I’ve got to be great to play. And last year, you know, the fruits of my labor showed.”
The Bears have a storied history with undrafted rookie free agent centers focused mainly on four-time All Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler Jay Hilgenberg, whose story is not at all unlike Mustipher’s.
But there’s another piece to the puzzle that has to be considered.
What about Mustipher’s college teammate and fellow undrafted rookie free agent Alex Bars, who stepped in to start at guard when Mustipher took over the center job?
Offensive line coach Juan Castillo said of Bars after his first start, “What Alex did the other night is, he played with passion. He played with heart. I was really proud of him.”
Unlike Mustipher, who is undersized at center, Bars looks like he was built in a lab to play guard, and as much as it’s impossible not to pull for both of them, the Bears owe it to the team to determine whether Mustipher is a better center than Bars is a guard, and how much better Daniels might be at center than Mustipher.
Or could both Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom be ready now at left and right tackle, respectively, and would moving Germain Ifedi back inside where he was signed last year as a free agent to play, give the Bears the best five with Daniels at center and both Mustipher and Bars on the sideline?
Like I said, it’s a high-class problem, but one the Bears must find the best answer to if they’re serious about contending this year.
• Hub Arkush is a Shaw Media correspondent.