The Bears knew they needed to improve the offensive line in 2023. They went into the offseason looking to add talent at tackle and along the interior.
General manager Ryan Poles zeroed in on former Tennessee Titans right guard Nate Davis in free agency. Davis was coming off four solid years with the Titans, blocking for star running back Derrick Henry in a scheme similar to what the Bears run. The Bears signed Davis to a three-year, $30 million contract.
Additionally, head coach Matt Eberflus moved guard Cody Whitehair back to center, where he began his pro career in 2016. This pushed veteran Lucas Patrick to the bench. The Bears went into the season planning to start Teven Jenkins at left guard, Whitehair at center and Davis at right guard.
As is so often the case along the offensive line, injuries changed everything. Here’s a look back at what went well and what didn’t along the interior of the offensive line in 2023.
After playing right guard in 2022, Jenkins handled the transition to left guard beautifully. He seemed like a natural fit and was arguably the best all-around lineman on the team, when healthy. A calf injury caused him to sit out the first month of the season.
Similarly, Davis was good when healthy, but the problem was availability. When the Bears did start winning games in December, Jenkins and Davis were healthy and contributing.
Patrick was supposed to play center in 2022 and hardly ever did. Ironically, in 2023 when he was supposed to be on the bench he wound up starting 15 games at center. At times, his blocking left something to be desired, but his snaps were more accurate than Whitehair’s and he seemed to be in control when directing the offensive line.
Whitehair proved to be reliable as a backup at all three interior spots.
Whitehair’s transition to center was derailed by the Jenkins’ injury in August. The coaches moved Whitehair to Jenkins’ spot at left guard. All in all, Whitehair started only one game at center and ended the season as a backup.
Jenkins suffered a calf injury midway through training camp and missed the first four games of the season. He also exited the Cleveland game in December because of a concussion and didn’t play the following week. Jenkins has never started more than 11 games in a season. He missed four games in 2022 and five in 2023.
Davis had a late start, too. A serious illness in his family forced him to miss time during training camp. He started in Week 1, but clearly wasn’t as prepared as he could’ve been. A week later, his family member died and he missed games in Weeks 2 and 3. In just his third game back after that, he suffered an ankle injury that forced him to miss a month of the season. He appeared in 11 games total.
When Jenkins hurt his calf in training camp, the Bears traded a sixth-round draft pick to Miami in exchange for lineman Dan Feeney. Feeney started only one game. The Bears would probably rather have that draft pick back.
1. Training camp: The Bears lost Jenkins and Davis during training camp. Davis was in and out of practice all month long as he dealt with personal matters at home. Jenkins hurt his calf during joint practices with the Colts in Indiana.
2. Bad snaps: Whitehair started at center during a Week 6 game against the Vikings. It proved to be his only start at center. Numerous bad snaps led to the Bears benching Whitehair in the second half. They went with Patrick at center the rest of the season and moved Whitehair to a backup role late in the year. The Bears’ plan to move Whitehair back to center ultimately never really got off the ground.
3. Week 9: According to Pro Football Focus’ grading system, Jenkins earned the top grade of all offensive linemen across the league in a Week 9 matchup against New Orleans. When Jenkins was healthy, he played at a high level. There was no better example than the Saints game.
Davis has two more years on his contract. Jenkins has one year on his rookie deal. Patrick will be a free agent. Whitehair has one year remaining but is due $13 million and is likely to be cut. Backup Ja’Tyre Carter has two more years on his rookie contract. Center Doug Kramer and guards Bill Murray and Jerome Carvin signed futures contracts.
Shaw Local Grade: C+
Injuries led to a lot of moving parts. The center position needs to improve.
The Bears have to find a long-term answer at center. The 30-year-old Patrick is set to be a free agent. He served his purpose as the team’s leader on the offensive line during this full-on rebuild phase, but it’s time to do better.
The Bears could look to spend money in free agency. There could be several experienced centers available. They could also look to find a center high in the draft. It’s not a position they would likely take with either of their top-10 picks, but potentially a second- or third-round pick.
Jenkins is entering the final year of his rookie contract, but injuries remain a concern. The Bears should wait and see how things progress into 2024 before committing money.