Bears Must Look to Their Own History and Prioritize the Center Position

| March 1st, 2024

Here’s what I don’t want to hear/read as the Bears prepare for training camp this summer: “Player X is a natural guard but the Bears are planning to use him at center.” No. No more. Enough.

The Chicago Bears have had two periods of play at or near the top of the sport in the Super Bowl era: one under Mike Ditka and one under Lovie Smith. What did those two periods have in common? From 1985 to 1991, the Bears had a Pro Bowl center in Jay Hilgenberg. In 2006, the last time the Chicago Bears made the Super Bowl, their center, Olin Kreutz, was voted first-team All-Pro. These are not coincidental facts. Centers are the anchor of the offensive line, and the offensive line is the most important “unit” within a professional football operation. Offensive lines don’t need to be collections of top talent. It helps, but it’s not necessary. Offensive linemen need to be resilient and versatile. Offensive lines need to play with cohesion. That resiliency emanates from the center position. Cohesion derives from the leadership in the middle.

The Bears are building something impressive up front, despite what the Justin Fields devotees want you to believe. They will more than likely enter the 2024 season with Braxton Jones (25 this season) at left tackle, Teven Jenkins (26) at left guard, Nate Davis (28) at right guard and Darnell Wright (23) at right tackle. Those are four solid options up front, especially if Davis rebounds from a complicated 2023. (Folks who think Davis suddenly can’t play ignore the myriad of personal complications that drowned his campaign.) Can they perhaps upgrade at a spot or two? Potentially, but none of those four players need to be actively replaced this off-season. None of that matters, however, when the center position is consistently occupied by veteran turnstiles on their last legs in the league, all of whom seem to be incapable of executing a shotgun snap.

It seems to have been an organization mandate to de-prioritize the center position. And there are options available to buck the trend.

Lloyd Cushenberry has turned into one of the better pass-blocking centers in the league, and his leadership has been praised throughout the Broncos organization. (One friend told me Sean Payton is still desperate to keep Cush and the team has not ruled out the franchise tag.) At only 26 years old, the Bears would be giving their rookie quarterback a center entering the prime of his NFL career. Will he cost a lot of money? Yes. But Kreutz cost a lot of money in his prime too. Center is a position to be prioritized financially, not cast into the bargain bin of roster construction, and adding a player of Cushenberry’s ability would give the Bears their most dynamic offensive line since Kreutz left town.

Acquiring a free agent center should not prohibit the Bears from targeting the position in the draft either. This would again be a welcome detour from a generation of centerial malpractice. (Centerial is not a word, but that will not prevent me from using it because, honestly, it should be a word.) I don’t know anything about Jackson Powers-Johnson, or Zach Frazier, or Sedrick Van Pran, or Kingsley Eguakun, or Tanor Bortolini. Frankly, most of those names sound made up. But the middle rounds are the perfect opportunity to identify the center of the future; a player who can learn the ropes playing multiple interior positions and then slide into center role once he’s ready. (And maybe the Bears can send him to an off-season shotgun snapping academy or something so we can eliminate this issue in perpetuity.)

Ryan Poles has executed this rebuild efficiently in his first two seasons. He needs another weapon on the outside. He desperately needs a second pass rusher. And he’s going to be starting a rookie quarterback. But if this organization continues to ignore the center position, this OL will never eclipse mediocrity. It’s not a novel concept. Find a center to play center. And this off-season presents Poles with multiple opportunities to finally prioritize doing just that.

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