Bears Rookie Emerging as Frontrunner for Starting Job

Braxton Starter Candidate

Getty Braxton Jones #70 of the Chicago Bears answers a question from the media during training camp at the PNC Center at Halas Hall on August 02, 2022 in Lake Forest, Illinois.

General manager Ryan Poles has already received some due praise for landing the Chicago Bears a pair of immediate defensive starters — cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker — with his 2022 NFL draft haul. And he can expect a whole lot more to come if Braxton Jones continues to prove he is the real deal.

Jones has been one of the highlights for the Bears over their first week of training-camp practices with the 2022 fifth-round pick receiving consistent reps at left tackle with the first-team offense. While Jones was initially rotating with newly-signed veteran Riley Reiff through the first couple of sessions, he has been taking all of the reps with the starters over the past few days of practice.

The Bears nabbed Jones in the fifth round of this past spring’s draft, investing their first of eight Day 3 picks in the Southern Utah standout in hopes that he might be able to develop into depth for them at offensive tackle. The expectation originally was that Jones would most likely compete for a backup/swing role behind second-year tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom, but Jenkins’ extended absence and Jones’ ability to quickly pick up the offense has opened doors for him and given him a legitimate chance to be named a Week 1 starter for Chicago.

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Jones Showing ‘It’s Not Too Big For Him’

Jones’ rise through the ranks might not have been as feasible if he had been selected by a team with more established depth at offensive tackle, but give the rookie credit: When the Bears have asked him to step up, head coach Matt Eberflus said he has done exactly that and shown “it’s not too big for him” at this early phase of his career.

“(Jones) has absorbed all the information,” Eberflus said during his August 4 presser. “He’s done that and he’s showing that it’s not too big for him. When you come in as a rookie, sometimes the spots are big. And not to say that he’s been perfect, because he’s a rookie and he’s had his moments, but he’s doing a good job. We like where he is, we like where he’s progressing. He’s got a long way to go, but we like where he’s at.”

No doubt, it remains an enormous task for Jones to not only earn a job as a starter but also prove he can be an effective one. While the Bears are lacking quality alternatives aside from Borom and Reiff — and maybe Jenkins, depending on when he returns to the field — the important thing will be keeping Justin Fields’ blindside clean. It won’t matter if Jones starts all 17 games if he lets his quarterback get pummeled.

If Jones seizes the opportunity and proves he is NFL ready, though, the Bears will have taken a significant step toward solidifying their offensive line for the future.

How Many Bears Rookies Will Start?

Not everyone was a fan of the future-building approach that Poles took during the 2022 draft, including how he invested both of his top two picks in the Bears’ defense instead of their much-depleted offense, but the evaluations on how well he did could swing wildly over the next few years depending on the early returns.

Gordon and Brisker — both of Poles’ second-round selections — have been turning heads as expected in camp and would seem to have strangleholds on their starter positions at their respective positions. While there are going to be bumps and teachable moments along the way, the Bears secondary could end up being one of the better units in the league if the two rookies catch on quickly and handle their business. Don’t forget, the Bears also have returning No. 1 corner Jaylon Johnson and free safety Eddie Jackson, who should benefit from more quality support in the deep field.

The other potential starter from the class is Poles’ third-rounder, Velus Jones Jr. He isn’t going to push for Darnell Mooney’s WR1 spot heading into his rookie year, but he could realistically start the season as their second man on the outside with free agent signing Bryon Pringle designated for the slot. The biggest obstacle will be standing out against experienced competitors, such as N’Keal Harry, Equanimeous St. Brown and Tajae Sharpe.

At the very least, Jones has been distinguishing himself as the top punt returner option for the Bears heading into the new year. His ability as a returner was part of what helped his draft stock and drew teams to him throughout the pre-draft process, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears let him settle in that role to begin the season.

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