Braxton Jones emerging as potential starter at LT for Chicago Bears

Braxton Jones

Chicago Bears rookie offensive tackle Braxton Jones was a surprise starter at left tackle during the team’s final round of OTAs and this week’s mandatory minicamp. His status as a first-teamer had ripple effects along the offensive line, namely Larry Borom shifting to right tackle and Teven Jenkins bumped down to second string.

Jones, a 2022 fifth-round pick from Southern Utah, was deemed a good value pick on draft weekend. But even the strongest advocate of his skill set should be surprised by his usage. Left tackle is one of the sport’s premium positions, and rarely is it filled by a rookie drafted on day three.

“Yea, honestly, I was a little bit surprised,” Jones said Thursday of lining up as a starter. “Overall, jumping in with the ones has been great.”

Jones added that the surprise went away quickly. It should; he has a legitimate chance to prove he’s the Bears’ best option at left tackle, and if he gets off to a hot start in training camp, it could be his job to lose.

Does Jones really have the ability to be a starting left tackle at this point in his development? The odds seem stacked against him. While Jones certainly has appealing natural ability, he did play college at a lower level of competition. A learning curve is coming, and his role in the starting lineup will depend on how quickly he adapts.

I studied Braxton Jones as a draft prospect and was impressed with his physical makeup and traits. A three-year starter for Southern Utah, Jones’ film displayed smooth athleticism for a man his size. He has good flexibility and bend and is strong enough to anchor against power rushers even if he can be jolted backward at times. Jones has good length that helps him keep speed rushers at bay, although twitchy edge defenders did occasionally give him trouble. I deemed Jones a better zone-system fit and projected him as a developmental prospect with starter’s upside two or three years into his career.

It was an optimistic assessment overall. But by no means did I think Jones would be ready to compete for a starting job in Year 1. My concern is that his usage may be more indicative of the Chicago Bears’ lack of talent at offensive tackle than anything Jones is doing exceptionally well. Perhaps, Borom and Jenkins aren’t high bars to jump. Maybe Jones looks and moves like the best fit for offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system in a t-shirt and shorts.

Or maybe Jones is that good.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. It’s difficult to project small-school players into starting roles as rookies because they aren’t facing NFL prospects weekly. Sure, Jones dominated his competition. But few of those players will ever play a down in the pros.

Here’s what NFL Network’s Lance Zierlein wrote about Jones in his NFL Draft evaluation:

“Jones has moments where he can overwhelm his level of competition with size and length, but he’s currently lacking the technique and force needed to succeed against NFL defenders. Jones’ run blocking isn’t as dynamic or athletic as expected, and his issues with pad level are a concern. However, he has good slide quickness, developmental traits, and talent that should not be overlooked in pass protection. Shoddy footwork and a lack of half-man leverage in his pass sets led to a rough game against Arizona State, but both areas are correctable with work. He has the upside to become an average starting left tackle, but swing tackle feels like the safer projection.”

An average starting left tackle? At this point, I think the Bears would be happy with that. And if he loses the training camp battle against Borom (or Jenkins), he’ll be a quality swing tackle. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.

The Bears’ 2022 NFL draft class has a chance to be pretty special. Cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker are sure starters. Wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. should get starter’s reps, too. If Braxton Jones opens the season as the Chicago Bears’ left tackle, he’ll make it four draft picks in critical roles for this team as rookies.

That’s either a job well done by Poles or the brutal reality of a roster left behind by Ryan Pace.

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