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Column: Chicago Bears gave Braxton Jones a look at left tackle — and the rookie is ready to battle for a job in camp

Coach Matt Eberflus was quick to point out the Chicago Bears spent the spring mixing and matching players at a variety of positions when asked about Braxton Jones appearing with the starters at left tackle earlier this month.

Indeed, the Bears were shuffling the lineup at a couple of spots, but Eberflus and the Bears surely understand why particular attention is paid to the offensive line, the area general manager Ryan Poles talked about improving when he was hired.

If you’re handicapping the field at left tackle before the team opens training camp July 26, the day veterans will report to Halas Hall, Larry Borom and Jones are the leading candidates. Borom, a fifth-round pick last year, spent the offseason program at both tackle positions, and Jones has emerged as an option.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was definitely a little bit surprised,” Jones said of his reaction when he was told to run with the starters. “That surprise went away quick. It was thrown on me and it’s time to go. It has been something that’s really good for me to get that speed, the speed of going against guys like Roquan Smith. That’s crazy, you know. It has been valuable for sure.”

Whether Jones gets a shot at the left tackle job when training camp opens remains to be seen. Real evaluation of play in the trenches begins when the pads go on, but the Bears had to have seen something in Jones to give him a look.

Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and offensive line coach Chris Morgan will have plenty to sort through. They were rotating Sam Mustipher and Dakota Dozier at right guard, but Dozier was carted off Tuesday with what a source said is a left knee injury. Borom and Teven Jenkins, a second-round pick a year ago, played with the starters at right tackle. Ultimately the organization needs to identify its five best linemen and figure out how they fit.

It’s possible the Bears are intrigued by one of the lineups they’ve used so far. Or there could be an entirely new lineup they want to explore in training camp, but Jones is eager to show up next month and battle.

“I assume it’s going to be a lot different,” he said. “Even though we’re getting a good look right now in terms of speed with linebackers, you’re not necessarily getting a bull rush. You’re not getting somebody right down your face. It’ll change big time, and from now until July 22nd when I come back is going to be huge for me. I’ve got to gain ground on guys. I’ve got to get stronger.

“Fifth-round guy, but it doesn’t matter. I have an opportunity here, and it’s a great opportunity to gain ground on some guys. I’ve got to get stronger, quicker, all that stuff, sharper in the playbook. It’s really important for me when I go home to have a plan, and I do have a plan, making sure I’m following that plan.”

Jones, 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, popped on the radar of the Senior Bowl staff in spring 2021. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said three members of his staff went to evaluate Jones during his senior season at Southern Utah to confirm what they had seen on film. Some believe Jones’ junior tape was better than last season, which could be why he remained on the board into Day 3.

“The talent is all there,” Nagy said. “He’s a really twitched up athlete. The pass-set stuff, the redirect, he looked like an NFL left tackle on his junior tape. We were really high on him.

“The biggest thing is just lower-body development. He needs to get stronger in his lower half, which will come over time. If that is the one thing you need to improve, NFL teams feel good about that. It’s hard to make a guy longer or twitchier. You can always put some bulk or strength on them.”

Jones said Morgan has been stressing the need for him to be more effective and consistent with his hands to take advantage of his 35⅜-inch arms.

“The biggest thing (in) my transition from college to the NFL or college to the Senior Bowl to the NFL and just in these OTAs is throwing my hands,” Jones said. “In college, I was really reserved with my hands and I didn’t use my long arms to my advantage. They’re a big thing for me and they’re going to help me be really good in this league. They’ve gotten better.”

Nagy admitted it is unusual for Day 3 rookie offensive linemen to work their way into a starting role, especially at left tackle, and there’s a lot of ground to cover between now and Week 1 for Jones to earn a job.

“I am not totally surprised because he has that kind of talent,” said Nagy, who noted Jones excelled in one-on-one pass rush drills during the Senior Bowl week. “He definitely has left tackle starter talent. Did I think he would get there Year 1? Probably not.

“It’s hard with the big guys when you’re not in pads. That forum sets up really well for Braxton because he is such a good foot athlete and he can get out there and dance with you in pass protection. You’ve got to put the pads on in August and see how that all shakes out.”

Whether Jones can put himself in position to play in Year 1 remains to be seen, but the Bears have a prospect worth investing time in. And if they can address the left tackle question with a Day 3 pick, whether it’s in 2022 or 2023, Poles would be off to a good start on the offensive line.

“Everybody is competing,” Jones said. “Rotating or whatever you want to call it, it’s all competition. I’m competing for a job, maybe a guy who is behind me is competing for a job, and maybe the right tackle on the other side is competing for my job. You never know.”

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