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Bears second-year center Cody Whitehair. (Getty)

Bears’ Cody Whitehair ready for next step after impressive rookie year

SHARE Bears’ Cody Whitehair ready for next step after impressive rookie year
SHARE Bears’ Cody Whitehair ready for next step after impressive rookie year

Cody Whitehair was everything the Bears were looking for in a drafted player last year. He was versatile — switching from left guard to center two weeks into training camp. He not only replaced an injured player but provided an upgrade. And — perhaps most of all — he stayed healthy.

It doesn’t get much better than that. Whitehair not only started all 16 games as a rookie after second-year center Hroniss Grasu suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament at Family Fest in August, but he played at a near-Pro Bowl level by most accounts — he was ranked fifth among centers by Pro Football Focus. Guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton are more accomplished with three Pro Bowl berths each. But Whitehair already is just as much a part of the foundation of an offensive line that needs to take a big step in 2017.

And he has more room for growth than any of them after getting through his rookie season.

“It’s tough [as a rookie],” said Whitehair, the Bears’ second-round pick (56th overall) in 2016. “When you think out there, it slows you down a little bit. Now I have a year under my belt; I’m not thinking as much. Now I’m ready to play fast and really get things going.”

At this time last year, Whitehair still was trying to get his feet on the ground at guard and learn the playbook. Those 16 games at center have made a big difference.

“I’m able to read the defense a little bit better pre-snap,” Whitehair said, “where I know what’s going to happen pre-snap, and I don’t have to think when I take my first and second step.”

Whitehair’s comfort level also is evident on the field and in the meeting rooms. He’s not a rookie anymore.

“I feel more comfortable leading,” he said. “As a rookie, you sit back and watch the vets and see what they do. I’ve taken initiative, and I’m trying to help this team win.”

NOTE: The Bears claimed fullback Michael Burton, a 25-year-old fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft, off waivers from the Lions on Wednesday. He caught six passes for 39 yards and a touchdown and ran four times for two yards in 2015. He had one target but no rushes or receptions last year. The Bears have one other fullback: rookie Freddie Stevenson, an undrafted free agent from Florida State. To make room, they waived tight end Franko House, a rookie who played basketball at Ball State.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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