From the beginning of the Bears’ 2022 rebuilding season to a terrible 3-14 finish, offensive tackle Braxton Jones was a long-term hopeful sign.
A fifth-round draft pick from Southern Utah, Jones was immediate proof that first-year general manager Ryan Poles and his scouting staff could find a quality starting player in a critical position in the middle rounds of the draft.
The Bears promoted Jones to first-team offense at left tackle during week three of OTA practices, a sign that Matt Eberflus’ coaching staff identified Jones’ preparation early and would not hesitate to give a rookie a chance. rather than forcing him to beat a veteran.
And Jones not only kept his job, but generally held up well: He was named to all-rookie teams by the Pro Football Writers of America and Pro Football Focus. And Jones not only started all 17 games, but played all 1,034 offensive snaps—an impressive accomplishment on an offensive line that had only two players (Jones and center Sam Mustipher) playing more than 64 percent of offensive snaps. of last season due to injuries and substitutions.
Overall, Jones’ rookie season was a significant win for Poles, Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, and offensive line coach Chris Morgan. But in the big picture of where the Bears hope to go, that was just the beginning. The Bears need Jones to be more than good for a fifth-round draft pick or good for a rookie. They need him to be good, period. And that means a big step forward is needed for 2023.
In recent years, the Bears have had linemen who made it through the mid and late rounds: Charles Leno (7th round in 2014), Jordan Mills (5th round in 2013), J’Marcus Webb (7th round in 2010) and Lance Louis (seventh round in 2010). round in 2009) all became starters. But only Leno had the staying power. And though Leno made the Pro Bowl in 2018, the Bears still needed something better.
The Bears are in the same situation this year – they need to improve at left tackle – but it’s Jones 2.0 who will need to deliver the upgrade and take another significant step to become a mainstay in what is still considered the most important position on the league. offensive line.
From the start of last season, Jones knew he needed to build up his core strength to counter his problematic bull run, and that’s just one aspect of his game that needs to improve in 2023.
“When he left he had a very detailed plan [after last season]Morgan said. “Braxton is a mature boy, I call him a child [but] he’s not a kid anymore. The maturity of him really showed. What he said he would do, he did. Over the [offseason] break, worked hard. We all saw the difference when he got back into the building, whether it was strength or bending.
Jones at left tackle is one of several positions that will need to produce updates for the Bears to take a significant step in their rebuilding under Poles and Eberflus. Some are newcomers: wide receiver DJ Moore, right forward Darnell Wright, defensive end DeMarcus Walker among them. But the auto-updates from returning players are just as great: from Justin Fields to Jones to Chase Claypool to Kyler Gordon.
Here’s a look at 10 positions that will most likely need to be measurable upgrades for the Bears’ rebuilding to hit another gear in 2023:
1. Justin Fields, quarterback:
The Bears upgraded his support with Moore, Wright, guard Nate Davis and tight end Robert Tonyan. But Fields himself will have to take a big step forward in being an NFL quarterback: going through the progressions of him, getting rid of the ball faster, accuracy, and making correct rushing/passing decisions in split seconds between them.
2. DJ Moore, Wide Receiver:
The three-time 1,000-yard receiver technically replaces Mooney as the #1 receiver. large rotation of the receiver. The difference has already been felt.
3. Gervon Dexter/Zacch Pickens/Andrew Billings, defensive tackles:
Billings, who started with the Raiders last season, looks like a better run-stopper than the Bears last year with Justin Jones, Armon Watts and Angelo Blackson inside. But it’s the development of debutants Dexter and Pickens that will likely tell the story of the update in 2023.
4. Darnell Wright, right tackle:
The Tennessee rookie thinks he’s having growth issues. But as the No. 10 overall pick in the draft — by a staff led by former offensive linemen at Polacchi and assistant general manager Ian Cunningham — Wright could not only be an upgrade over Riley Reiff / Larry Borom , but playing at a high level in his first season.
5. Braxton Jones, left tackle:
The Bears had the option to put in left tackle, but after drafting Wright they committed to keeping Jones on the left side for continuity—a big vote of confidence in the 24-year-old sophomore.
6.Kyler Gordon, cornerback:
The narratives look promising for Gordon to make a big improvement: He’s more comfortable in his second season; As a second-round pick (No. 39 overall), he has a knack for capitalizing on experiences from rookie year; he’ll have a run at the best pass to work with; and it’s more of a dedicated slot corner after playing on and off last season.
7. Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver:
The Bears paid a steep price (a second-round pick that ended up being No. 32 overall) to acquire Claypool from the Steelers midway through last season, in part so he could get off to a flying start in 2023. He just needs to be a better version of himself after an uninspiring seven-game intro in 2022.
8. DeMarcus Walker, defensive end:
The bar is extremely low after Al-Quadin Muhammad had a sack in 16 games last season, but as the Bears’ fastest offseason acquisition thus far (a three-year, $21 million deal), Walker – or a rusher advantage to be named later – he has to do more than just clear that bar.
9. Tyrique Stevenson, cornerback:
Like the Bears did with Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker last season, the Bears nearly gave Stevenson a starting job that’s his to lose: veteran Kindle Vildor. Like Gordon and Brisker, Stevenson’s lead as a second-round draft pick should be worth the inevitable rookie trials.
10. Nate Davis, right guard:
A four-year starter with the Titans, Davis wasn’t a blockbuster signing (three years, $30 million), but could provide more upgrades that help take the line to a new level: Davis on Teven Jenkins at right guard; Jenkins on Cody Whitehair at left guard; and Whitehair on Mustipher in the center.