By Chris Emma—

(CBS) The long days of throwing hay bales on a Kansas farm fortified the core values of Bears offensive lineman Cody Whitehair, allowing a talent 2016 second-round pick to become one of the NFL’s best centers in just a season.

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That workman-like demeanor helped Whitehair transition from left guard to center days before his first NFL regular-season game and impress immediately. Pro Football Focus gave Whitehair its second-best grade of any rookie center in the last decade.

Whitehair’s evaluation was different.

“I felt like I left a little bit out there,” he said of last season.

So once his rookie year concluded, Whitehair went right back to work in hopes of improving. He stayed around Lake Forest this past offseason and trained at Halas Hall, work that was “self-driven” without many others around the building.

Whitehair wanted to identify ways he could be better here in his second season. He aimed at developing a greater base and improving his footwork to be stronger in pass protection. Film study found new ways for him to reach the second level.

Now, he believes he’s putting it all together.

“It’s a little bit easier for me this year,” Whitehair said. “I know what to expect, I’ve got a better picture of defense that I’m going to go up against.”

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Added three-time Pro Bowl teammate Kyle Long: “His arrow is up, up, up all the time.”

The Bears landed guard Josh Sitton a week before their 2016 season opener after he was suddenly released by the Packers. Geography proved to be the key advantage, as Sitton only had to trek south three hours from Green Bay to Lake Forest. In turn, the Bears forged one of the league’s premier interiors with Long, Whitehair and Sitton.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears as having the league’s fifth-best offensive line in 2016, led by that interior. Whitehair found a fortuitous situation working next to two accomplished guards, which helped him excel as a rookie.

“They make my job a heck of a lot easier – I know that,” Whitehair said. “They’re just really fun to play next to. They’re always in such good position, play with such great hands in base. That shows on the field.”

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Olin Kreutz was the Bears’ center for 13 seasons and the leader of their offensive line. The Bears hope they now have their next Kreutz in the tireless worker Whitehair.

He’s an anchor to their offense and may become even better.

“I’m just going day by day,” Whitehair said. “And hopefully I can get to the top.”

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Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.