LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Braxton Jones played as well as could have been expected as a rookie left tackle for the Bears. Drafted in the fifth round out of Southern Utah, Jones was supposed to be a developmental project early in his career. That plan quickly changed when Jones was inserted as the first-team left tackle late in OTAs and never surrendered the role.
Jones played every snap of his rookie season for the Bears at left tackle. The results? Some good, but a lot to improve to show he can be part of the long-term rebuild plan in Chicago.
Per Pro Football Focus, Jones gave up 40 pressures and seven sacks in 542 pass-block snaps last season. Those numbers rank in the bottom third of the NFL among qualified tackles. If you look at tackles who played at least 540 pass-block snaps, Jones gave up the sixth-most sacks and 11th-most pressures. But almost all the players ahead of him had at least 50-to-100 more pass-blocking opportunities in 2022.
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Jones entered the offseason with a plan to get bigger and stronger to improve his anchor against the bull rush. The Bears felt he had a detailed plan of attack, and he checked every box before returning to Halas Hall this spring.
But Jones knows that identifying and stymying the bull rush isn't just a product of strength. His entire pass-block repertoire has to improve. Daily training camp battles with new Bears edge rusher DeMarcus Walker have shown him an area that has to get a lot better for him to start climbing the proverbial ladder as an NFL pass-blocker: His hands.
"Yeah, in one-on-ones, it's definitely been a fight," Jones said Tuesday after the Bears' first padded practice of his reps vs. Walker. "I think I'm more struggling with the hands part. Where to place my hands more than anything. I've realized I'm a lot better at noticing the bull rush and then anchoring on it, actually. But my hands are too wide to help myself. I think I just need to get my hands back right. I worked on them pretty hard in the offseason, but I think they are just kind of still wide, with pads being on even today. I just have to get them right. And I'll get them right, it's just going to take a little time.
"Work after practice and before practice as well just to get them right. I think with him, he has just such a small surface, he does a good job of really getting your chest. I have to work on that and throwing my hands. I think the anchoring part I have been working on and seeing the bull rush has been way better and just kind of sitting on it. I think I will give myself a better shot getting my hands right."
Jones' improvement as a pass-protector will get a lot of attention this season, and rightfully so. The Bears must see tangible improvement out of quarterback Justin Fields as a passer this fall, and Jones' ability to protect his blindside will be a critical element in Fields' growth.
But Jones arrived at camp not solely focused on pass protection. He showed up at Halas Hall with more of an edge and a desire to become a top-tier road grader in the run game.
"I've felt, feel like I've came back with a different type of mindset in the run game," Jones said. "I used to run away from a lot of things, and that was just, it wasn't me trying to run away from some of the blocks or anything like that. It's just understanding and experience, so just even on those front side zones, those wide zones, just taking it straight on, widening that edge has been 10 times better this year, and just now I understand and get it a little bit more."
For an offense predicated on the success of the wide-zone run, Jones' ability to keep improving as a run blocker -- an area he was good in as a rookie -- will be vital to the Bears' offensive success. The second-year tackle wants to show general manager Ryan Poles that he found his answer at left tackle in the fifth round, but he understands everything has to get better for the Bears to view him as a building block.
"So understanding that, getting my helmet into things, you know footwork and all types of things like that in the run game and just overall pass pro," Jones said of where he's challenging himself in Year 2. "Just fine-tuning my things and right now my hands just aren't right and I've been talking with my coach and they just haven't been right, and I just got to get them right. So, it's as simple as that."
Jones has also been an important sounding board in the offensive line room for first-round pick Darnell Wright. The No. 10 overall pick has drawn rave reviews from teammates on both sides of the ball. Wright skyrocketed up boards during the pre-draft process, and the Bears fell in love with his blend of size, athleticism, speed, and intelligence.
While Wright has been picking Jones' brain about learning the Bears' scheme, Jones also sees an opportunity to learn from the talented rookie.
"I think Darnell, he’s a big boy. So he can settle on bull rush really well," Jones said. "I think he anchors on it really well. Obviously, our hands have got to be better in certain areas for that, but I think learning from that, just the quickness he does that at, just settling on it. And then his pass pro, like he is pretty good at pass pro, and I can learn from that as well and take some tools from him in that area."
The Bears put the pads on for the first time in training camp Tuesday.
Wright struggled against edge rusher Trevis Gipson, while Jones held up well against Walker and Rasheem Green.
The Bears invested in their offensive line this offseason by drafting Wright and signing right guard Nate Davis. Poles understands that the front five has to be a lot better this fall to give Fields a legitimate chance to thrive in the NFL and not just survive as he did last season.
The new pieces might get the bulk of the attention, but a large portion of the 2023 line's success hinges on Jones' ability to go from rookie treading water to legitimate NFL left tackle.
Jones and offensive line coach Chris Morgan have drawn up a plan. They know the route they need to travel.
It all starts with the hands.