Sunday, May 28 2023

The Chicago Bears came out swinging within hours of the legal tampering window opening on March 10. By midnight, they had unequivocally won the first day of free agency, improving their roster significantly in a matter of hours on paper.

They addressed multiple obvious needs and fortified not-so-obvious ones, as well, including signing not one but two starting linebackers in the early days. They’ve since added Dylan Cole to provide depth to the room headlined now by Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards.

The Bears also signed defensive end DeMarcus Walker, inked two running backs in D’Onta Foreman and Travis Homer. They found a backup quarterback more in line with the skillset of their starter, Justin Fields, in P.J. Walker.

“But what about the offensive line?” came the cries from Twitter.

[Bears get help for Justin Fields, secure their future by trading No. 1 pick]

After reportedly losing out on Mike McGlinchey, the Bears pivoted and signed Nate Davis, a right guard who has spent his entire four-year career in Tennessee. That was a promising start, but what about Teven Jenkins, who seemed to find a home last season at the position?

The Bears now have an influx of depth on the interior. Davis, Jenkins, Cody Whitehair and Lucas Patrick are now all in competition for three spots. General manager Ryan Poles noted after the signing of Davis that there was a potential for Whitehair to slide further inside at center, a position at which he’s played over 4,000 snaps. Davis said in his introductory press conference that he would play on whichever side the team wanted him to, despite only playing on the right so far as a professional.


“It’s going to be competitive. We’ve been in communication with a lot of them and we’re going to make that competition,” Poles said of the offensive line. “But I think we feel comfortable with the group that’s there that we’re going to figure out the best interior group.”

But wait, hasn’t Poles also stressed creating competition throughout the roster? Isn’t this maybe a perfect example of that then?

The Bears still lack depth at the tackle spots. And yes, I said depth. It sounds like they already have their left tackle.

“Right now, Braxton Jones is the starting left tackle,” Poles said at the combine. “He is working out and getting stronger.”

Jones was a fifth-round selection out of Southern Utah who played every snap at left tackle in 2022 for the Bears as a rookie. Sure, he took his lumps. But the transition of a college offensive lineman to the pro level is already a rocky one, even for prospects from big, pro-ready programs. Southern Utah isn’t that, so Jones should be forgiven for having a bit of a learning curve.

“I was proud of Braxton,” Poles said in January, via the Bears official website. “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.”

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Furthermore, Jones was 11th among tackles in his run-blocking grade, according to PFF. He tied for the 19th-best grade among tackles, overall. His 75.4 score tied him with none other than Orlando Brown Jr., who was the top left tackle in free agency this year.

There were conversations all around sports media and amongst fans if the Bears should solidify the left tackle spot with a more experienced player like Brown. Poles was even part of the front office that had brought him to Kansas City in the first place in 2021. If anyone knew what Brown could bring to a team, it was Poles.

But Chicago stood pat in free agency and didn’t end up with Brown.

“Yeah, I’m not going to get into the specific player, but the scheme match is a big deal there,” Poles said in his free agency press conference, presumably referring to Brown.

Now right tackle is still up for grabs. Larry Borom played snaps there last season. Alex Leatherwood saw limited looks, as well. But at league meetings this week, while Poles said he’ll keep an eye on players that are possibly available both before and after the draft, it sounds like the draft itself may be the target.

“Right now, to improve our team, I think we got to look to the draft,” he said on Monday.

But here’s the catch: for all intents and purposes, Jones was a draft hit for Poles. You pluck a small school guy out of the fifth round who starts every snap at a crucial position along the line for you and that is validation for your evaluation process. Let’s not forget, Poles was an offensive lineman himself. What other position does he trust his evaluation more as a result?

It’s why, while guys like Peter Skoronski out of Northwestern and Paris Johnson Jr. out of Ohio State will likely be there at No. 9 when the Bears pick in the first round, I think it’s unlikely the Bears take them — not with so many other holes on the roster.

Poles doesn’t need to take a sure-fire prospect, even with the needs they have at tackle and along the line. He can find the diamonds in the rough — that’s already been proven in Chicago, specifically. Poles focuses on value, always, and while spending first-round capital on the offensive line works out more often than it doesn’t (just look at the top five tackles in the NFL right now), there are still plenty of gems to be found in later rounds.

The Packers got David Bakhtiari in the fourth. The Eagles got Jordan Mailata in the seventh. And we’re probably going to add the Bears getting Jones in the fifth when all is said and done.

So if you’re expecting the Bears to take a tackle in the first round, I just wouldn’t hold your breath.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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