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Guarded Optimism

Herb Howard says he will be watching Teven Jenkins closely on the offensive line tonight, and, if he performs well, he just may find himself as a Week 1 starter for the 2022 Chicago Bears after all, albeit at a totally different position than anyone expected.

It’s been a tumultuous start to the career of Teven Jenkins. Drafted in the 2nd round in 2021 out of Oklahoma State, the expectations were high. The Chicago Bears had traded up to draft him. Bears Nation was hopeful that he’d be their bookend Tackle for the next decade.

The 6’6 330lb behemoth had shown flashes of dominance in college, pairing his size and athleticism with a mean streak that allowed him to manhandle some of the nation’s best defenders. It was easy to get excited while watching film of his highlights. Bears scouts, coaches, and fans imagined him as Justin Fields’ personal protector and a road grader in the run game. Jenkins was going to be the tone setter on that offensive line. The guy who not only dominated during the play, but, if there were some extracurriculars going on after the whistle, he’d be in the center of that as well, making sure the defense knew that this Bears offense is not to be pushed around nor bullied. It was the role that Olin Kreutz had played so well for so long.

Almost immediately those expectations were forced to be tempered and genuine concern set in. Jenkins would miss all of training camp his rookie year with a back injury. The Bears repeatedly reported that this was not the same back injury that he had dealt with in college, an injury that caused some NFL teams to take Jenkins off of their Draft board. Ultimately, surgery was required and Teven’s highly anticipated debut would be pushed back until Week 13 of the season, when he came in as a reserve against the Arizona Cardinals. Jenkins’ first NFL start would come in Week 15 versus the Minnesota Vikings.

Understandably, Teven Jenkins’ limited action in his Rookie year featured some mixed results. He flashed some potential to be the player that everyone in the Bears organization hoped he would be. But he also showed signs of not only being a Rookie, but a Rookie that had missed a lot of football. By the end of the season, the proverbial jury was still out on Jenkins. And then ownership brought in a new regime. Firing General Manager Ryan Pace and Head Coach Matt Nagy, and replacing them with first-time GM Ryan Poles and first-time HC Matt Eberflus. Still, most observers assumed that Jenkins would be one of the Bears’ starting Offensive Tackles in 2022.

At the introductory press conference for Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus, Poles said that he prefers smaller, more slender offensive linemen. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that, I don’t think 6’6 330. That was red flag number one. Coach Eberflus was asked about the promising young talent he’d inherited on this roster, he refused to cite anyone, instead saying that he and his staff would have to evaluate these players for themselves and go from there. Red flag number two. Then the NFL Draft came along, and the Bears selected 4 offensive linemen, before adding even more as Undrafted Free Agents. Clearly the new regime was not impressed with the group they already had. Red flag number three.

Even if you take those three red flags and say that they are not direct indictments of Teven Jenkins, what came next was an undeniable indication of what they thought of him as their starting Tackle. Early in minicamp, Rookie 5th round pick, Braxton Jones, out of Southern Utah, was running with the 1st Team at Left Tackle. Jenkins was relegated to the second unit. Red flag number 4. Even for a new coaching staff, using spring practices to mix and match lineups and experiment with positional flexibility, this was not a good sign for Teven Jenkins. The 2nd year player was expected to be the clear front-runner for a starting spot, and now he was behind a 5th round rookie that had just come from an FCS school.

Still, the prevailing thought was that Jenkins was one of the Bears top 3 Tackles, and had a viable shot at being the starter. Once the pads came on in training camp, his physical prowess would be evident, and he’d take his rightful position as a starting Tackle. In the words of the legendary Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!” Just prior to the start of training camp, the Chicago Bears signed veteran Free Agent Riley Reiff to a one year, $10 million deal, seemingly pushing Jenkins even further down the depth chart. Red flag number 5.

At that point I had seen enough to question whether or not Teven Jenkins, the Bears 2nd round pick from just a year ago, was in danger of not making this roster. Some observers had read the tea leaves the same way as I had, while others thought there was no way that he wouldn’t make the roster. At several checkpoints throughout this series of red flags, several media members asked Bears coaches if there was a possibility of Jenkins kicking inside to Guard. Each time we asked, we were given the impression that this was unlikely. If Teven wasn’t a starter at Tackle, he wasn’t the swing Tackle, and he was unlikely to move inside to Guard, it was very reasonable to wonder if they’d keep him on this team. What was his trade value? Could they get a decent draft pick for him? Would they do the unthinkable and cut a 2nd year player with so much potential, whom they’d just drafted in the 2nd round a year earlier? These were all fair questions.

And all of that was before Jenkins missed 10 days of training camp. He had not been seen by fans or media. The coaching staff was not clearly answering questions about him. Red flag number 6. Was he injured? Were they keeping him out of practice, ensuring his health for a pending trade? Was he unhappy with his demotions and away from the team?

Finally, after his very curious absence, Jenkins was back at practice and brought in to speak to the media. He was asked all sorts of questions. Questions about his injury, his absence, his mental state. Questions about how he has handled being pushed down the depth chart. Aside from the apparent injury, which remained undisclosed, Jenkins answered every question. He was honest. He was accountable. He said that he’d taken the demotions as a sign that he needed to improve his play. Asked whether or not he thought he could play inside as a Guard, Jenkins said that he’d play anywhere the team needed him. He appeared mature, self-aware, and ready for the challenge ahead. Green flag.

In his return to the practice field, Jenkins continued to get most of his reps as a backup Tackle. He entered the Bears first preseason game against the Kansa City Chiefs in that role. And then something interesting happened: veteran free agent signee, Offensive Guard Michael Schofield, whom the Bears had also brought on just ahead of training camp, didn’t perform well. He was beaten badly on multiple plays. Meanwhile Teven Jenkins played quite well in his snaps as a reserve at Tackle. After the game, on “Da Windy Chicago Bears” podcast, I said Teven Jenkins may begin to get some looks at Right Guard. Sure enough, that is exactly where he has been this week. Monday, he got reps there, mostly with the 2nd Team. Tuesday, he was running with the 1s, and may be primed to make his first start there for the Bears tonight in Seattle.

Offensive Coordinator Luke Getsy said that this offense puts a lot of mental stress on the Guards. He said that Jenkins is very smart, and that has allowed him to be able to make this transition from outside at Tackle to inside at Guard. Veteran Left Guard, and leader of this offensive line, Cody Whitehair, echoed those sentiments. Saying that Teven watches a lot of film, asks great questions, takes detailed notes, and has been doing a good job at Guard. Whitehair said that everything happens quicker on the inside than it does outside, and that takes some adjustment. He said that he’s been telling Jenkins about how to use his hands and footwork to gain an advantage.

Teven Jenkins has been through a lot in his short career, and, to his credit, he seems to have persevered through it all. Maybe he won’t be the Chicago Bears Left Tackle for the next ten years. It appears that his next chapter may be at Guard. He still possesses all of the physical tools that made him a high 2nd round pick, and perhaps he now has a huge chip on his shoulder.

I’ll be watching him closely on the offensive line tonight, and, if he performs well, he just may find himself as a Week 1 starter for the 2022 Chicago Bears after all, albeit at a totally different position than anyone expected. Having rightfully counted him out at Tackle for this team, I’m optimistic about his possibilities at Guard.


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