Last April, in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears selected an offensive tackle from Southern Utah University by the name of Braxton Jones. Southern Utah is not known as a school that produces many NFL players. In fact, during my 30-year career as a scout in the NFL, it is one of the few schools I never made a school call to, and I have been to several “small” schools.
Southern Utah, at the time, played in the Big Sky Conference with schools such as Montana, Idaho, Idaho State, and Northern Arizona. The Conference is an FCS level conference, so it can’t be confused with the SEC and Big Ten. In fact, when you look at the level of competition, the FCS schools are down two levels from Power-5 type schools. After the Power-5, there is the group of 5, and the difference in the quality of football between those two levels is huge. Granted, there are several players from FCL level schools that play in the NFL, but Southern Utah isn’t one of them.
Braxton Jones grew up in Murray, Utah, a small town between Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah. Murray is hardly a bastion of high school football like kids who grew up in places like Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta. The level of competition isn’t nearly the same, and the players from small towns like Murray don’t get recruited like players from the “productive states/cities.”
Following High School, Jones enrolled at Southern Utah, where he played for five seasons. What is remarkable is that Jones was recruited as a defensive lineman and didn’t play on the offensive line until his third year at Southern, which was 2019 (he redshirted his first year in 2017)
He became a starter that first season on offense and was named a sophomore All American, so it was obvious that his future was on the OLine.
Because of the Covid Pandemic, there was no 2020 fall season at the FCS level, so they played a shortened spring season consisting of seven games. In reality, because of Covid, he played fewer games, and that further hampered his development.
In 2021, he again was a starter but showed some dominating traits, and that earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he more than held his own against players from bigger schools. His play in 2021, as well as at the Senior Bowl, put him on the radar of NFL scouts. Then, his strong performance at the Combine further helped his cause.
Still, he was a small school prospect with limited experience on the offensive line. That background does not translate to being a high-round draft pick.
Sometimes in the Draft, a team must get lucky, which is exactly what happened to the Bears when they selected Jones. Take away the small school background and the limited experience Jones had, and just look at his natural traits, and the only thing we can say is, “Wow.”
Braxton Jones is 6’5¼”, 310 pounds, with 35⅜” arm length. He also runs a 4.97 in the 40, which is rare for such a big man. His 20-yard shuttle time at the Combine was average, timing 4.84, but he improved that to a 4.74 at his Pro Day as well as timing 7.57 in the 3-Cone, which is excellent. He also did 26 reps of 225 on the bench, which equated to being able to bench about 405 pounds. His upper body strength and power is very good.
Watching tape of Jones from Southern Utah and the Senior Bowl, he shows athleticism, quick feet, flexibility, and upper body strength. Where he needed work was with his overall technique and hand use, as well as developing his lower body strength to match his upper body power. That is not unusual for a player coming from a smaller program as they don’t have the strength coach expertise that the Power-5 schools or the NFL have.
When the Bears originally drafted Jones, I don’t feel they thought they selected a guy who could start as a rookie. Rather they felt he was a developmental type who could be ready to compete in year two. Because of his competitive nature and natural athletic traits, football character, and willingness to learn, he has developed much faster than anticipated. The Bears signed veteran Riley Reiff to play left tackle, but Jones quick development assured the decision-makers that Reiff didn’t have to play. The more important issue was making sure Jones developed into the player they think he can become.
In games to date, he has shown that he can be a top NFL run blocker. He flashes right now as a pass blocker but is not consistent, and in my opinion, it’s because of his lack of experience more than anything else. He will grow with every rep he gets. Next spring, he will participate in a full NFL off-season program and further develop his lower body strength and power, allowing him to anchor much better than he is this season. Once he develops his lower body, there is no telling how good he can be.
Just looking at his frame, body structure, and athleticism, the player he reminds me of is Baltimore Raven Ronnie Stanley. They are about the same size, with equal athletic ability and arm length. What Stanley had that Jones didn’t was playing his college football at Notre Dame, where he faced top competition week after week.
Personally, I feel that Braxton Jones has a great future. When we look at his background, it’s remarkable he is playing as well as he is. Sure, he has some difficulty in pass protection at times, but in another year, that will go away. After watching him closely since training camp, there is no doubt in my mind that not only is Braxton a player the Bears can win with, but he will become one of the elite left tackles in the League. His natural traits are equal to tackles taken in the premium rounds, he has excellent football character and the drive to become a great player, and there is no doubt he will.