The Chicago Bears shuffled their starting offensive linemen this offseason, but left tackle Braxton Jones was not one of them. They drafted a new right tackle, signed a new right guard, moved the right guard to left guard, and moved the left guard to center. But the Bears felt that the man that played every snap at left tackle as a fifth-round rookie in 2022 was good enough. They discussed moving him to the right side a few times, but their actions in free agency and the draft said otherwise.
The Bears believe in Braxton Jones.
The 24-year-old was a better run blocker than a pass blocker as a rookie, but he displayed the athleticism to get better in pass protection. He played with quick feet and active hands, and while he had some rookie moments, he had decent awareness when defenses ran stunts and blitzes at him.
“I was proud of Braxton,” general manager Ryan Poles said at his postseason press conference. “He’s got a long ways to go to reach his ceiling but for his path and if you look … not many people look at the schedule for a player who goes into the offseason, Senior Bowl, combine, comes in as a fifth-round pick, battles through camp, gets a spot and then plays every single snap through the season. That’s an accomplishment right there. That tells me he’s wired right. He’s got mental toughness, roll the ups and downs. So I’m hoping that he continues to work on his body, his technique and that’s someone that we can play with and be successful with for a while.”
Players in the NFL generally take a significant jump in play from their rookie to sophomore season. They have a better understanding of what it takes to be a pro. They’re more comfortable with the playbook. They have a feel for what their teammates are doing around them. And they have an entire offseason to work on their deficiencies.
“I want to be that guy,” Jones said last year during his week 17 press conference. “I want to put in the work in the offseason, too, to be that guy and be a cornerstone for this organization. I feel like, obviously, I’ve got a lot of work to do, but just personally, in the way I try and act around the building, I want to be here as long as possible and I feel like I could be a cornerstone for that left tackle position, so I definitely think I do gotta get, obviously, a lot better in certain situations.”
Jones was fully aware of where he needed to improve, and Poles discussed Jones working on his body and technique this offseason, and thus far the work has paid off.
“He had a very detailed plan when he left,” offensive line coach Chris Morgan said of Jones via NBC Sports Chicago. “You know, Braxton is a mature kid. He’s not even ... I call him kid — he’s not a kid anymore. His maturity really showed. Like, what he said he was going to do, he did. Over the break, he worked hard. We all saw a difference when he came back in the building, whether it was strength or whether it was bend... And he’s done a really nice job to this point.”
If Jones has leveled up his pass protection game, that will cut down on how often the team needs to help him out in year two. The Bears have a rookie, albeit a talented rookie, on the right side in Darnell Wright, and he may need the occasional chip while he works through some growing pains.
If Jones continues to develop and Wright lives up to the potential of being a first-round draft pick, the Bears will have bookend tackles for the next several years.
For what it’s worth, the two are already connecting on the practice field
“Him being the No. 10 overall pick, he’s been great,” Jones said about Wright in a recent interview with Heavy’s Matt Lombardo. “The biggest thing for me is just trying to tell him to relax a little bit and when things get tough, or overwhelming in practice, sometimes, just relax. It’s going to come.”
And Jones is able to learn from the rookie as well.
“But, it goes both ways, too. Darnell was a great pass-blocker at Tennessee, and they would really sling the ball around. So, I’ve definitely seen him, and taken some of his techniques away and tried to put it in my game a little bit, too. Obviously, he’s a premier 10th overall pick, so he’s got some tricks and tools that I can take from his game.”
Pro Football Focus had Jones down as their 19th overall tackle as a rookie, with his run blocking placing him 11th. He’s an ascending player with the skillset, athleticism, and intangibles to be a top-ten tackle in the NFL.