LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Bears tossed left tackle Braxton Jones in the deep end last season. Jones, a fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah, took on a ton of water early on. He gave up four sacks and 20 pressures in the first six games.
But he never sunk. Eventually, Jones found his level. He played well down the stretch, giving up just two sacks and eight pressures in the Bears' final five games.
Jones entered the offseason needing to get stronger against the bullrush. He worked to improve his anchor and his hand placement. Jones had a detailed plan with a myriad of boxes to check before returning to Halas Hall.
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The Bears were pleased with the work Jones put in during the offseason. The sweat poured into the bucket paid off, and the Bears feel like Jones is a different player than the one who gave up 40 pressures and seven sacks in a turbulent rookie season.
Jones' technique and strength have improved, but his most significant area of growth is between the ears.
“He’s just a lot more confident," offensive line coach Chris Morgan said Wednesday at Halas Hall. "Things have slowed down. Instead of just knowing his job, he can explain a concept now. Just explaining his job, he can explain how his job ties into the linemen next to him and the tight end if he’s involved and the runner. He’s quicker to understand when we go from this scenario to this scenario, whether it’s a play call or it’s a change from the quarterback or a picture that moves on defense. It’s just maturity and growth. He’s really put the work in. He’s developing as a leader."
That confidence has helped Jones play freer as he enters a season in which he hopes to cement himself as a long-term piece of general manager Ryan Poles' rebuilding project.
He no longer finds himself playing catchup after breaking the huddle. He can be where his feet are because he understands the why of the task at hand.
"It’s just the bigger picture," Jones said Thursday. "Like, you start to understand things way more once you come around a second time. Certain things in the playbook that I just literally go like this [waves hand over head], I have no idea necessarily what’s going on. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it a second time, I’m like, ‘Oh, that makes sense. I see why the defense, or defender is doing that and not doing that.’ Certain things like that just make you 10 times more confident. Then when you go out and you rep it all week it’s super hard during the week because that’s how you want to be. Then you go out on Sunday and it’s just like you can play fast."
Jones was the one constant on a Bears' offensive line that was in flux for the entire 2022 season. He played every offensive snap, a momentous achievement for a guy expected to be a developmental prospect when drafted.
The Bears revamped their offensive line this offseason and entered training camp with their "best five" already written down.
That unit has fewer than 10 snaps together in padded practices during training camp, and Jones is the only fully healthy member of the group.
Last year's lack of continuity helped prepare Jones for what he's currently facing. Left guard Teven Jenkins is deemed week to week, right guard Nate Davis is still trying to get back to full participation in practice, and right tackle Darnell Wright suffered an ankle injury Tuesday. The Bears moved center Cody Whitehair to left guard after Jenkins' injury, but the veteran offensive lineman is dealing with a right-hand injury.
Whitehair has practiced all week, so there's a good chance he lines up next to Jones on Saturday in the Bears' preseason finale against the Buffalo Bills. As for the other three spots, Doug Kramer, Ja'Tyre Carter, and Larry Borom are the likely options.
"For me, it’s just keep on going," Jones said when asked how he navigates the injuries to the other offensive linemen. "You can’t really worry about it at the end of the day. Things happen, whatever’s going on, but that’s kind of between them and whoever is out and stuff like that. I dealt with it last year, so it’s just a keep-on-going mindset, and when a new guy comes in or whatever happens, just keep my head forward and keep on grinding and trying to get my best foot forward for Saturday or Sunday when it comes."
Four months ago, Jones and his long-term staying power at left tackle might have been the biggest question marks on a rebuilt offensive line in Chicago.
With 17 days until the Green Bay Packers arrive at Soldier Field, he's once again the only constant—a reliable pillar on the left side.
But that's the only thing that's the same. Everything else feels different for Braxton Jones and the Bears in Year 2. Now, the results need to follow.