Teven Jenkins admits he pushed himself a little too hard.
But who could blame him?
After having his final season at Oklahoma State cut short because of a back injury, the big 6-6, 321-pound offensive tackle fell out of the first round of the NFL Draft before the Chicago Bears decided to trade up and select him at No. 39 overall in April. The Bears believed in him so much that they released longtime left tackle Charles Leno Jr. right after drafting Jenkins.
And the rookie didn’t want to let them down.
“Of course you don’t want to show up here and show people, if he’s a little bit hurt, he can’t go,” Jenkins said Wednesday, speaking to the media for the first time since June. “You never want to be that guy. But of course if you get a little bit hurt you’ve got to play through it. That’s how football is. If you want to survive, you’ve got to keep on playing. That’s what everybody’s doing.”
Jenkins started feeling pain in his back during the offseason program and both he and the Bears insist the symptoms were different than what he dealt with at Oklahoma State. At its worst, Jenkins said he felt “unbearable” pain in his “nerves, in my legs, down my legs, it was just terrible.”
When Jenkins arrived at training camp in late July, the team thought they could treat the pain without surgery. Publicly, Bears head coach Matt Nagy called it “back tightness.” The biggest indicator they didn’t believe Jenkins would miss significant time was that they didn’t place him on the Physically Unable to Perform list at the start of training camp. They also didn’t sign anyone else, opting to roll with backup tackle/guard Elijah Wilkinson at left tackle in the preseason.
“There were many different things we did before the surgery route because that was our last resort,” Jenkins said. “I probably pushed myself out there a little bit faster because I had that urge to — I wanted to get back on the field. I (didn’t) care if it was hurt, and maybe I did push myself a little bit too much and made it a little worse and that’s what ended up going on to get surgery.”
You knew it wasn’t good when the Bears gave 39-year-old Jason Peters a call. He was fishing in Texas, far away from a grueling NFL training camp. But he had experience with Bears offensive line coach Juan Castillo and decided to put his fishing pole away for one more NFL season.
On Aug. 18, Bears head coach Matt Nagy announced Jenkins needed back surgery and didn’t guarantee a return during the 2021 season. The Bears were going to roll with Peters at left tackle instead.
The Bears were immediately hopeful the surgery would fix the issue for good, but Jenkins was left in a tough spot because he couldn’t lift weights or keep his conditioning up. He would come to Halas Hall for meetings in the morning and then go home.
“What I did was, wrote down the plays, go home. I would mentally roll them out in my head with like a whole bunch of different scenarios,” Jenkins said. “And when it came to it, when I was actually able to move around a little bit better, I would actually do walk-throughs, like a walk-through situation with myself and on the board. And my fiancé, she helped me out a little bit too, helped me trying to remember my things.”
Nagy refused to provide any details on Jenkins’ progress as the season rolled on. Meanwhile, it was very obvious Peters was immediately the Bears’ best offensive lineman.
Then, on Nov. 8 in Pittsburgh, before the Bears’ Monday night game against the Steelers, Jenkins took the field early for a vigorous workout with trainer Andre Tucker. He appeared to be moving well and, for the first time, fans were provided a glimmer of hope that they would see their prized offensive tackle in 2021.
When the Bears returned from their bye week, they opened up a 21-day practice window before finally activating Jenkins off injured reserve before last Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. Wednesday, Jenkins said he hasn’t felt this good since he was “probably 18 years old. Fresh out of high school going to college. Feel like a young buck.”
But Jenkins isn’t quite all the way back. He’s still Peters’ backup at left tackle and was limited to two field goal snaps against the Cardinals in his NFL debut, in part because the Bears want to be cautious with the man they envision playing left tackle for a long time. Not surprisingly, his lifting routine is specialized too.
“We’re not loading my spine right now. We’re not doing back squats or anything,” he said. “We have a new — I’ve only done it here — but it’s called like a J-squat, like a full belt squat. Just put on a lot a weight on there and keep on squatting like that.”
But even with the added caution, Jenkins is hopeful the back problems are behind him.
“I don’t see this being a problem ever again, because there’s not any screws in me, there’s nothing in me, it’s not like that,” he said. “It’s just clean-cut, amazing. So I don't feel like it’s ever going to be a problem again.”
The next step now is to actually play offensive tackle in a game. With the Bears sitting at 4-8 with five games left, one would think Jenkins’ development would take priority. On the other hand, the Bears also have a rookie quarterback, so Peters’ reliability and experience as a future Hall-of-Famer is very valuable for Justin Fields.
“For me, it's all about trusting the process. Like you said, he's a Hall of Famer. He's greatness. So I have no problem sitting behind Jason Peters right now and learning -- just learning,” Jenkins said.
The rookie pointed to “certain nuances” Peters picks up, which helps identify defensive tendencies. Everyone in the offensive line room has praised Peters’ presence on the team and there’s no debating that he has been a tremendous addition to the roster. And even though Peters’ presence is now keeping Jenkins on the bench, he still views the veteran’s mentorship as the silver lining to his injury.
“There's everything that goes with it, like pros and cons, of course,” Jenkins said. “The con was me getting surgery. The pro was I ended up learning from Jason Peters. So I'm glad he's here. I'm glad we got to bring him in and I'm glad I'm learning from him.”
The Bears appear to be leaning towards keeping Jenkins at left tackle, even though he primarily played right tackle at Oklahoma State. The team also drafted Larry Borom Jr. out of Missouri in the fifth-round and he has held his own in five starts at right tackle.
Ideally, the Jenkins-Borom tackle pairing will stick for a long time, but it’s unclear if we’ll see that pairing this season. Sunday, Nagy said Jenkins would “most likely” remain in a depth role for the rest of the season, but also didn’t slam the door shut to him playing. Of course, an injury on the offensive line could lead to significant playing time before the season is over.
For now, Jenkins is going to continue to work in practice and get his feet wet on limited field goal snaps. He admitted that he was nervous on his first two field goal snaps, saying “it’s just one little hump I had to get over.”
It hasn’t been an ideal rookie season for the 39th overall pick, but Jenkins has maintained an extremely positive attitude and appears to be coming around physically.
"I trust what the Bears have in store for me and I trust what Coach Castillo has for me and Coach Nagy,” he said. “I trust them all. And I believe it's the right path for me.”