Emma’s OTAs notebook: Why Cody Whitehair feels it’s now ‘different’ for Bears
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — When Cody Whitehair was selected in the second round back in 2016, the Bears were led by John Fox as the head coach, Ryan Pace as the general manager and Jay Cutler as the quarterback.
Whitehair was just a soft-spoken rookie finding his place in the NFL back then. Seven years can seem like an eternity in the NFL, where coaches, executives and certainly players come and go through the doors of team facilities. The 30-year-old Whitehair is now the Bears’ second-longest-tenured player behind only long snapper Patrick Scales. He’s a grizzled veteran, a team captain and beloved figure at Halas Hall.
“This will be my eighth year here,” Whitehair said. “And I take a lot of pride in wearing the ‘C’ and the Bear on my chest.”
Last season, Whitehair was part of a new direction led by Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles – his third Bears head coach and second general manager. They embarked on an ambitious rebuilding process, starting with a teardown in 2022. While most of the veteran cast inherited by this new regime have been since cast off, Whitehair’s leadership and reliable presence on the offensive line were coveted.
Whitehair could’ve been a salary-cap casualty in this offseason of continued transition – a possibility he even pondered – but his presence is still of great value. The Bears are hoping to emerge this season on the cusp of sustained success and Whitehair believes in what’s ahead.
“There’s a different feel this year,” Whitehair said. “Everybody is really hungry this year.
“We’re really excited with where we’re at and where we’re going to go.”
This time around, there’s hope on the horizon for these Bears. Whitehair is part of a team that is building with a more deliberate plan than his first seven years.
Back in 2015, Pace had fewer assets to work with in rebuilding the Bears. He tabbed a head coach in Fox who wasn’t committed to the vast challenge ahead. Whitehair was drafted a year later to a team on the verge of a 3-13 campaign and bottoming out even further. The Bears’ NFC North title with a 12-4 season in 2018 proved to be a fleeting triumph before the franchise tumbled on the path set by Pace and then-coach Matt Nagy.
Under the watch of Eberflus and Poles, the Bears have stocked the cupboards with considerable assets and begun to build a roster with greater talent. Chicago is still in the foundational position of this rebuilding plan but there’s growing belief in what’s to come. What’s underway is a process with calculated decisions and a great deal of patience.
Whitehair is being counted on as he slides from left guard to center, the latest position switch in his time with the Bears. But more so than that, Whitehair is asked to set an example for his team.
“We love having him around,” Eberflus said. “He’s always positive, always energetic. He brings it every day in practice, which is great for the young guys to see that. He’s a true professional. So, ups or downs, highs or lows, he’s always going to be the same guy in the building every single day. We really appreciate that of him.”
The Bears this offseason made key investments with the acquisition of two first-round picks and wide receiver DJ Moore from the Panthers, plus the signings of Tremaine Edmunds, T.J. Edwards, DeMarcus Walker, Nate Davis and more.
Whitehair has two more years left under contract with the Bears as part of a long-term extension Pace signed him to in September of 2019. While this offensive line has been overhauled by Poles, Whitehair has been a key catalyst for his teammates. It’s why he’s just one of 14 remaining players from Pace’s tenure left on this roster.
The Bears hope for Whitehair as their new center to enhance the protection for Justin Fields, their promising young quarterback who ultimately carries the hopes for this team greater than anyone else at Halas Hall. But every player, coach and member of the organization plays a role in creating a winning culture.
Whitehair’s presence is an instrumental part in the Bears’ hopes to become a winner for years to come. He’s confident in the future and proud to be part of building something lasting.
“I love what’s going on here,” Whitehair said. “We’re going to get this thing turned around. I’m looking forward to being part of it.”
Year 2 for Gordon
In his second career NFL game, Kyler Gordon was picked apart by future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers targeted Gordon over and over again – 13 times in total for 10 receptions, 163 yards and two scores surrendered. It marked a disastrous start for the career of Gordon, the No. 39 overall pick in 2022 – the first ever draft pick made by Poles’ regime.
Gordon endured an up-and-down rookie campaign with the Bears, stepping in as the nickel cornerback his first season and facing challenges there. He recorded three interceptions but also graded out 109th among all cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Bears sense a difference in Gordon as he enters his second season in the league.
“Well, it is a product of not being a rookie,” Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “It’s just relaxing. Last year everything was just in a frenzy because he wants to please, he wants to be so good. So, it’s just ah, ah, ah, all the time, and now he’s OK, he’s relaxing. He’s playing within himself. He’s got his feet up underneath him.”
Gordon has focused primarily on the nickelback position in the Bears’ defense, even with Jaylon Johnson not participating in OTAs. The Bears are hopeful to have a strong trio at cornerback in Gordon, Johnson and rookie Tyrique Stevenson.
For the 23-year-old Gordon, the focus is on continued improvement and letting the game come naturally in his second season.
“I do feel like extremely comfortable,” Gordon said. “I feel like I know my place, where I’m supposed to be and stuff like that. So, definitely coming back this second year, I definitely don’t have any of the ‘Where am I?’ like I did the first year. I feel like I know where I’m at, what’s going on and where I fit.”
After losing David Montgomery to the rival Lions in free agency, the Bears could turn to several running backs to take his place.
The Bears will be counting on third-year running back Khalil Herbert to likely carry the workload, but the team signed veterans D’Onta Foreman and Travis Homer in free agency, then selected Roschon Johnson in the fourth round. Trestan Ebner also returns to that backfield mix in his second season.
Herbert is embracing the Bears’ backfield depth while eager to lead the way this season.
“You need one, two, three really good guys that really carry the rock and there’s going to be no dropoff,” Herbert said.
“We’ve got a really strong group. We’ve got guys who can take it to the house at any given moment.”
Jaylon Johnson, Eddie Jackson, Darnell Mooney and Nate Davis were not present with the Bears for practice on Wednesday. Chase Claypool, Lucas Patrick, Alex Leatherwood, Jack Sanborn and D’Onta Foreman were present but not participating.
Wednesday marked the Bears’ fifth practice of nine scheduled for OTAs, which are voluntary in participation. The team will host veteran minicamp June 13-15 at Halas Hall. Participation is required and players absent are subject to fines.
The Bears welcomed in a special guest for practice on Wednesday. Cooper Roberts, a survivor of the Highland Park shooting, was welcomed in by the team as a visitor. His family, including twin brother Luke, joined him on the sidelines.
Roberts met with Eberflus, Poles and Fields, and was presented by the Bears with a beach buggy (a specialty wheelchair designed for beach accessibility) in recognition of his love for the beach.
Roberts was just 8 years old when he was shot and left paralyzed in the tragic shooting last July 4 that left seven dead.
“Very fortunate to have a VIP guest with us today,” Eberflus said.