Considering it’s been 30 years since the Bears last started a rookie on Opening Day at left tackle, that’s a big deal.
Braxton Jones, a fifth-round draft pick, is still playing the position with starters a week into training camp, even after the Bears signed longtime NFC North walkout Riley Reiff.
Jones should be considered the surprise of training camp, even if he practiced at that position with starters for half the season.
“Yeah, he just, you know, absorbed all the information in the execution,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “He’s done it 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 you shouldn’t say 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’s at, we like where he’s progressing and he’s got a long way to go, but we like where he’s at.”
For Jones to repeat a feat last accomplished by Troy Ozen in 1992 during Mike Ditka’s senior year and start the opener, it will require improvement. He knows it.
“Yeah, I’d say a big thing for me is trying to anchor myself in that boom,” Jones said. “I’ve been working on a few things over and over, especially in the passing game. I have to throw my tight hands over and over and just play fast. That’s the most important thing and I’m getting better every day. That’s my goal.
“It’s obviously not easy, but if you can get 1 percent better every day, that’s like the biggest thing for me every day. If I see something I did wrong yesterday and I did it right today, that’s big for me. And I think another thing too is really focusing on those tight arms. I need to get better at this. Once I get a handle on it, and nobody’s seen me do it consistently, but once I do it consistently, I think it’s going to be a big jump.”
Not jumping the gun would help too. He’s as much to blame for that as anyone as the Bears try to adjust to a high-count offense.
“I would say for myself, I kind of try to navigate the cadence as much as I can, and some of it just comes from trying to jump it and be as quick off the ball as possible, and some of it is just accidents, that just need to be cleared,” he said. “They can’t be a thing anymore, especially for young guys.
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“We know the cadence. We reviewed the cadence, especially for me. All the cadence issues I have are trying to get better with the cadence and just getting a little better at doing my job trying to play fast and everything at the same time. I’m just saying partly to try to navigate it and also skip it a bit.”
Jones surprised with those first-team snaps during OTAs and minicamp after Teven Jenkins was doing it at left tackle. Then the Bears traded for Reiff. Before Thursday’s day off, Jones had practiced left tackle even as Rafe played. They moved Reiff to right tackle, a position he hasn’t played regularly since 2016 in Detroit.
Jones wasn’t sure where those games would take him when minicamp ended, so he just kept working out and getting ready before camp.
“I went back to Utah working out with a coach that I did a little bit for some of the combine prep and stuff like that,” Jones said. “I just got back to Utah and it was good for me to get away a little bit just to get away and see the game and the point of the book.”
He felt like he was far away, and looking at the playbook put everything into perspective.
“I’d say I took a big step in that sense and it allowed me at the beginning of camp to play a lot faster and be a lot quicker,” he said. “I would say one of those things was a big step. I felt like I was back in better shape. I think I needed to get back in a little bit better shape in terms of when those pads were on today and things like that.”
When he returned, he found they had signed Reiff, the former Bengals, Vikings and Lions tackle.
“Yeah, it does two things for me,” Jones said. “It’s just another way to compete. I think that’s the biggest thing.
“And then I learn from a vet. Just as I answered a (reporter’s) question, he sees things very differently. He has experience. He’s been in the league for a long time. So no matter what, honestly, we’re competing for jobs and it gives me a chance to get a little bit more experience asking him the questions and having him say ‘you did this wrong’ or ‘you did that right.’ After all, we are still competing. Those are two great things and I just thought of it as an opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity for some Bears history and something big at the start of a pro career.
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