Justin Jones’ starting job with the Chicago Bears might be safe for now, but that could change before the start of the 2023 season with a pair of Day 2 draft picks — Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens — in the fray and hungry for a shot.
The Bears made some key investments in the interior of their defensive line on the second day of the 2023 NFL draft, using their first of two second-round picks (No. 53) on Dexter and the opening pick of the third round (No. 64) on Pickens. The moves were necessary after the Bears finished with a league-low 20 sacks in 2022, but they also raise questions about whether Jones will remain their starting three-technique tackle.
Even if he does, Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon doesn’t believe he should.
“Justin Jones will reprise his starting role, and Chicago signed Andrew Billings in free agency to patch up the depth chart. However, the Bears should not hesitate to insert the younger players. Last year, after all, Chicago ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per game and 26th in rushing yards per carry,” Kenyon wrote in his May 8 article.
“Pickens and Dexter, who each worked at both defensive tackle spots in rookie camp, are potential long-term fixtures. In theory, the more playing time Pickens and Dexter get as rookies, the better for the Bears’ future. As much as Chicago may dream of a playoff spot in 2023, the real goal is building for 2024 and beyond.”
Ryan Poles Believe in Justin Jones Taking ‘Next Step’
Jones was one of Ryan Poles’ first big investments as general manager, signing him to a two-year, $12 million contract last offseason in hopes that he could fill the instrumental 3-tech role for head coach Matt Eberflus’ new 4-3 defensive scheme. And fill the role he did; although, his three sacks and lackluster run defense left much to be desired at the position. Still, Poles felt Jones was a “consistent playmaker” even when it didn’t show up in the box scores and has expressed confidence in him moving into the 2023 season.
“I thought did a really good job,” Poles said of Jones back in January’s end-of-year press conference. “I thought he was a consistent playmaker through the season. With that front, I know there were a lot of questions on production in the pass game with sacks. I think that’s a group that, just like O-line, you’ve got to work together. It’s not just one player. Again, I’m excited to see him take the next step next year. In terms of a steady piece that I thought made plays throughout the season, I thought he did that.”
Now, it is important to remember Poles said those things about Jones back in January before Dexter or Pickens were more than names on a draft board, but they shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed just because he added two rookies with premium picks.
Jones is the only interior defensive lineman remaining from last year’s roster and will have quite a bit of knowledge to offer the rookies in terms of learning the system. Being a year wiser in the system could also lead to greater yields in sack production, especially with a stronger group of defensive linemen working with both inside and outside. The Bears have three new veterans on the line in Billings and defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Rasheem Green and also added a seventh-rounder in Travis Bell.
Bears Rookies Rotated Between 3-Tech & 1-Tech
The Bears won’t begin the meat of their offseason program until May 22 when their first OTA practice is scheduled to take place, but they did have a chance to get some of their rookies their first on-field action during last weekend’s rookie minicamp at Halas Hall. According to Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Chicago, Dexter and Pickens both rotated between the one-technique and three-technique roles over those two days, a sign that the Bears might not have to try too hard to get either one of them playing time early.
The Bears have Jones in place as their 3-tech tackle and won’t have to force one of the rookies into the lineup sooner than they are ready with Billings available to play the 1-tech role, but both Dexter and Pickens possess the versatility to play either role. It might take some time for them to earn enough confidence from the staff to start in one of the roles, but Eberflus being able to rotate them in at both interior spots should help with their overall development and get them some in-game experience right away.
“It’s exciting to be able to have those guys and add those guys into the middle of our defense,” Eberflus said after the draft, via ChicagoBears.com. “We really feel that’s a very important part to play in good run defense and also being able to push the pocket inside and to have some big athletes in there, it’s certainly harder to throw around those guys, too, in the pass rush.”