Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus has made one thing abundantly clear this offseason. The 2022 Bears will start players who give the team the best chance to win, regardless of draft pedigree or past success.
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson was the first to experience a surprise’ demotion’ during minicamp last month. Arguably the team’s top young defender, Johnson lined up with the second team in what coach Matt Eberflus downplayed as not a big deal. Johnson was back with the first-teamers during the Bears’ recently concluded OTA sessions.
Right tackle Teven Jenkins wasn’t, however. Instead, rookie Braxton Jones was given time with the first team at left tackle. Larry Borom, who lined up as Chicago’s left tackle throughout the offseason, was the first-team right tackle at OTAs. It was Jenkins’ turn to run with the backups.
“Early on in OTAs … we said, ‘Hey, we’re going to move guys around,'” Eberflus said Wednesday. “So it’s the halfway point for us. We made the switch, and we wanted to change combinations.”
Sure, changing combinations and seeing what works best is great. But what’s even better is the competition brewing on the practice field. And it’s happening at several positions.
“And that’s not the only [change],” Eberflus said. “We’ve changed from tackle to tackle. We’ve moved some receivers around. Some guys playing ‘X’. Some guys are playing ‘Z.’ We’ve adjusted some guys on the defensive line to really found out — have a true evaluation of what’s the best fit for us going into training camp.
“We might like the other combination. We might like this combination. We might not like either of them. Now let’s go to [this] one in training camp. We’ll figure out what the best thing is, and that’s really just more information for the coaches to find out what’s best for the Bears.”
Chicago Bears training camp will kick off at the end of next month. Not having a clear starting five offensive linemen is a concern for the Bears, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t talent on the roster.
“Braxton is a tough kid, very athletic,” left guard Cody Whitehair said of the rookie tackle. “He’s got really long arms as well. He’s learning. As hard as that is to be throw in the fire like that, I feel like he’s responded well. [I’m] excited to see what he can bring.”
Jones wasn’t the only surprise starter. Free-agent addition Dakota Dozier lined up with the first team at right guard, a position that’s the most unsettled up front. There’s a chance the Bears will add a veteran starter later this summer or insert one of the four rookies drafted on day three into the starting lineup.
For now, there’s only so much Bears coaches can evaluate. Once the pads go on in July, that’ll change.
“That’s your true evaluation when you get pads on,” Eberflus said. “I’ve seen guys, man, they look great all the way through this part of the year, and then the pads come on, and they stay on. It’s like [practice] No. 4 or 5 in training camp, and all of a sudden, you see a guy slide.
“It’s because of the physicality of the game. Some guys are really suited for that, and those are the guys that succeed in the NFL. The guys that are not suited to that, they have a harder time.”
Physicality is where Jenkins should separate from the rest of Chicago’s offensive linemen. He’s the nastiest of the bunch. It was his calling card as a college prospect at Oklahoma State, and he flashed his mean streak at times during his limited reps as a rookie.
Matt Eberflus will get the most out of Chicago’s roster. Competition on the practice field will be fierce. And when the games begin counting for real, the Bears will be the best version of themselves.
Bryan is the founder and managing editor of Bears Talk. His previous stops include Bears coverage for NBC Sports Chicago and USA Today.