LAKE FOREST – Many might have expected Braxton Jones to fade into the background of the Bears' offensive line competition when they signed Riley Reiff to begin camp. He did not.
When the pads came on, it was a prime example for Jones to look like a rookie going up against NFL veterans Robert Quinn and Al-Quadin Muhammad. He did not. On the contrary, he shined.
"I think Braxton was a guy that is obviously a super athletic kid that we were excited about after spring ball," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said Friday. "Then you get into the pads and there was zero intimidation. Going against Robert Quinn your very first one-on-one pass rush, right? It's an intimidating thing. He stepped up and did a great job. He's answered the bell. He's done a really nice job us."
The race hasn't been called, but we're nearing a point where it would be a surprise if Jones isn't the starter at left tackle. He has received just about every first-team snap this week in training camp and has not faltered as many expected.
The Bears are incredibly high on Jones. While they selected him in the fifth round, many draft experts saw the Southern Utah product as a Round 3 or 4 talent with plus-starter upside.
It's clear the Bears agree and will give him every opportunity to prove he's built to be an NFL left tackle.
The offensive line puzzle has been the story of Bears training camp through the first eight days. But eight days have not been enough for the Bears to find the answers they seek.
"No," Getsy said when asked if the Bears' first-string line was taking shape. "I think we're still a ways away for a lot of positions to be honest with you and that's one of them. We've flipped guys from right to left up front and we're trying to see whatever combination makes the most sense and which guys are the most flexible for us. So, we've got a lot of information still to find out."
That might be the Bears' story, but that's not what their actions tell us.
Since the pads went on Tuesday, the Bears' offensive line picture has been pretty consistent.
Jones and Cody Whitehair have anchored the left side. Sam Mustipher and Doug Kramer have shuffled in and out at center, but Mustipher has started to get more snaps as the week has gone on. The same can be said of Michael Schofield, who has overtaken Ja'Tyre Carter.
At right tackle, Larry Borom took all first-team snaps heading into Tuesday. But once the pads went on, Borom had some issues in pass protection against Trevis Gipson, and Reiff entered the picture.
Over the last two days, Reiff has gotten first crack at right tackle and logged most of the snaps with the ones. Borom has gotten his cracks, but it feels like Reiff is pulling ahead.
The Bears also remain adamant that Teven Jenkins will compete for a starting spot when he is healthy. Time will tell if that passes the smell test.
As for Jones, he's not focused on what the future holds. He's staying where his feet are.
"I have the same mindset," Jones said during the first week of camp when asked if potentially being the starter has changed his approach. "My mindset is to get better every day. I know I sound repetitive, but that's really what it is. I've always been that way, even in college and high school, same way I've always been. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to be the best at what I do, so when I take that mindset, I'm just trying to be the best.
"Obviously everybody wants to start, and everybody wants to play and make a lot of money. I think the best way to do that is trying to get better every day."
Jones has continued to do that since the pads have come on. If he starts at left tackle and can be a league-average or better tackle out of the gates, general manager Ryan Poles might have found the first draft steal of his Bears career.
But Jones and the Bears' uncertain O-line have a lot of work to do before any victory laps can begin.