The Bears will take an important step in their preparation for the 2023 season Tuesday when they practice in pads for the first time this year.
"The intensity, it's kind of like practice to games; it goes up a little bit," said center Cody Whitehair. "We haven't been in pads for six months. So obviously for us big guys, it's a fun day that we can really work our run fits, our combinations, stuff like that to help us on Sundays."
The first five training camp practices were conducted without pads as part of a ramp-up period mandated in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. The full-contact workouts the Bears begin Tuesday will give coaches a better opportunity to evaluate players, especially offensive and defensive linemen.
"The physicality level will pick up tomorrow when we're in pads, and as big guys we always look forward to that day, for sure," Whitehair said.
An eight-year veteran, Whitehair feels that the offensive line is responsible for establishing the intensity level in padded practices.
"We set the tone up front, for sure," he said. "There's obviously a smart way to go about it. We're still teammates. We're still trying to get to the season and make sure we can be as healthy as we can be. But we've also got to callous ourselves and get ourselves ready. So absolutely that's on us as veterans to kind of set the tone and make sure everybody is on the same page. So we'll do that, for sure."
Whitehair is enjoying his move back to center, a position he played exclusively during his first three seasons with the Bears from 2016-18—including in 2018 when he was selected to the Pro Bowl. The 2016 second-round pick from Kansas State split time between center and guard in 2019-20 before moving to guard full time in 2021-22.
Whitehair revealed that the biggest challenge he's facing at center is "making sure I'm communicating great at all times."
"I take a lot of pride in that," he added. "I take a lot of pride in making sure that our unit is on the same page. Anytime I mess up, I beat myself up about that. But I feel like overall it's been a pretty smooth transition."
The only member of the Bears' starting offensive line returning at the same position is left tackle Braxton Jones, who started all 17 games as a rookie last year. The Bears moved Whitehair from left guard to center and Teven Jenkins from right guard to left guard and added right guard Nate Davis in free agency and right tackle Darnell Wright in the draft.
The good news is that all five starters have been in place since the middle of the offseason, unlike last year when the No. 1 unit wasn't finalized until midway through training camp.
Having switched positions multiple times in his career, Whitehair knows what Jenkins is experiencing.
"It's kind of tough because going from the right side to the left side, obviously you change your stance," Whitehair said. "Your outside hand becomes different and stuff like that. But you've just got to take it day-by-day and really embrace your individual time because that's really when you work on your technique and fundamentals.
"So just embrace fundamentals and your individual time and then grab a couple minutes before and after practice to work on a couple things that maybe you struggled on the day before in practice. Or hit that after practice so that you can create good habits."
Whitehair has been impressed with what he's seen from Wright, a 6-6, 335-pounder the Bears selected with the 10th overall pick in this year's draft.
"He's a really athletic kid," Whitehair said. "For a big guy, he's got really good feet, and he plays long. He plays with good extension. We were watching 1-on-1s in meetings a couple days ago and he's so strong. His strike and the way he moves his feet has really impressed me. [I'm] really looking forward to seeing him in the run game too. Big guy, he can move people off the ball, for sure."
Wright got the attention of his teammates when he excelled in a conditioning test last Tuesday on the first day of training camp—after mistakenly training for the exam administered to receivers, which involves a longer distance and a faster time than what's required of offensive linemen.
"We were really impressed with the way he came back," Whitehair said. "As a young guy, you're trying to figure out things. There's a lot that goes into it from a kid getting drafted to coming here for rookie minicamp and then staying and then having these five weeks [off] where it's like, 'Here's your freedom.'
"A young guy that's had so much structure throughout college, that you give him five weeks off and it's like, 'What do we do?' Well, he really used that opportunity, the five weeks, to get in shape and transform his body to come in and be ready for training camp. He did that. He did a nice job. He looks good. He's in great shape right now and we're really excited to see him go."