LAKE FOREST, Ill. – On Aug. 31, Teven Jenkins sat in the Bears’ locker room scrolling through his phone with a number of thoughts racing through his head.
After a tumultuous offseason filled with a demotion, position change, trade rumors, and anonymous sources questioning his maturity, the second-year offensive lineman made it through cut-down day and onto the Bears’ 53-man roster.
But there was no elation that day -- only uncertainty.
"To be honest, I got unhappy," Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago that day. "I was very unhappy. Then, as it kept going on because more talks kept coming, I was getting more unhappy about hearing about them and everything. A lot of unhappiness.”
After opening the offseason as the Bears’ presumed starting right tackle, Jenkins found himself demoted during OTAs and fighting for a roster spot in training camp.
A call from offensive line coach Chris Morgan, telling Jenkins the Bears wanted to kick him inside to guard, might have changed the trajectory of Jenkins’ Bears tenure and, perhaps, his NFL career.
Jenkins opened the season in a platoon at right guard with veteran Lucas Patrick. Despite limited playing time, the flashes of his potential came almost instantly.
A Week 1 pancake of likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa showed Jenkins’ nastiness and physicality, his calling cards as a tackle at Oklahoma State, would benefit him at his new position.
“I went over there, and I gave him a good pop,” Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago, reliving the hit on Bosa. “I looked down at him, and I just see Larry [Borom] get on top of him. I was like, 'Oh, damn!'
"It was a confidence boost knowing that I can do that to one of the top players.”
By Week 4, the platoon ended, and Jenkins seized the starting right guard spot. A position he had been playing for less than two months was his.
The 2021 second-round pick got better as the season progressed. He gave up just two sacks and 11 total pressures through the first 13 weeks of the season. While most of the Bears' offensive line struggled in pass protection, especially early in the season, Jenkins did everything in his power to keep quarterback Justin Fields clean.
Playing at a high level helped Jenkins put the unhappiness he felt during training camp and the preseason away. But the uncertainty about his future in Chicago and on the interior of the offensive line lingered.
It’s impossible not to dwell on things when everything you’ve worked your entire life for hangs in the balance.
“I have good days and bad days,” Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago near the end of the regular season. “I’m human. There are always bad thoughts out there. I just come to work. If something bad happens, then I’ll deal with it."
Jenkins credits center Sam Mustipher and tackle/guard Larry Borom for helping him navigate a turbulent time in his professional career. He leaned on them and other members of the offensive line room as he tried to find stability with a franchise that entered the season unsure of his place in their future plans.
Mustipher saw how everything impacted Jenkins from the outset. He saw the struggle. But more importantly, he saw what everyone else saw as Jenkins found his footing at guard and, it seems, with the Bears.
An ability and desire to overcome. To keep pushing.
“He’s had a rough go of it,” Mustipher told NBC Sports Chicago after the Bears’ season ended. “He’s been through a lot. I think when Teven’s out there, you see flashes of a guy who has the capabilities to be a phenomenal force in the NFL for years.
“I think you need that,” Mustipher continued talking about the adversity Jenkins faced. “Especially when you come in after the way he dominated in college football, a wake-up call, sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise. For him, I think it was. The way he plays, the way he drives guys off of the football, the way he plays in space, it’s really cool to watch.”
Sometimes it’s hard to see change as a positive. Spending your whole life focused on one thing, having a singular view of success and worth, can lock you in a box. One that can torment you if things don’t go according to the script.
From the moment he stepped on a football field, Jenkins has been a dominant force. Success at tackle came quickly, no matter the stage.
His new NFL reality took months to digest, accept, and embrace.
Looking back on the eight-month odyssey he traversed to go from potential roster cut to likely franchise building block, Jenkins can now see the forest through the trees.
“It was definitely good for me,” Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago. “I’ve never had – in my whole career of football, my whole life – I’ve never been benched until now. Never had any of that. That was a wake-up call. I’ve always been the starter here, the starter there, this or that. I’ve been the guy everywhere I played since growing up. Now, to have to fight for my position, earn a position and keep it. It was good for me. Good to have that struggle.
“For me, it’s about when I buy in, I can see how much that will make a difference than to be stubborn and not want change.”
The Bears saw the change in Jenkins as well. Not just in how he played but in how he worked and carried himself.
Both general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus lauded Jenkins for how he “handled adversity” and found success at a new position.
But still, it’s hard to let go of the dream and the pursuit of it.
Jenkins said he’d focus his offseason work on getting better at guard and strengthening his neck after he missed most of the final four games of the regular season with a "strain on top of a stinger" suffered in Week 15.
He knows he played well at guard while picking it up on the fly. He received positive feedback from coaches during his exit interview but knows consistency and availability are critical to his prospects of cementing himself as the Bears’ long-term answer at right guard.
And yet, something still beckons in the back of his mind. Not enough to alter his mindset or plan for a critical offseason. But enough to remind him of what he once wanted and, perhaps, still does.
“I want to be wherever is best for me, wherever is great for my career and wherever gets me paid the most,” Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago of his desired position. “Wherever I can take care of my family. If they want to leave me as a guard and still pay me, I’m OK with that. If they want me as a tackle. How do [they] want to do it?
“But me personally, I’d love to stay at tackle. Once again, guard is where I’m at. Playing great. Keep on playing great. Guard is I feel like that’s the best place for me now.”
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In August, between third-string tackle reps and an injury absence, it was hard to imagine Jenkins finishing the season on the Bears’ roster, much less doing so as one of few brights spots on a three-win team.
Jenkins understands the state of the Bears’ roster and the rebuild work ahead. Based on his play and conversations with coaches, he believes he earned a spot in the starting five in 2023. But he’s also acutely aware of how fast life can change in the NFL.
It already has for him in less than two calendar years in the league.
“I mean, we have a lot of cap space and a lot of opportunities in this draft, so I really don’t know how it’s going to go,” Jenkins said. “I don’t ever want to be the person to say, ‘Yeah, I have a spot.’ I don’t want to do that because I always want to stay hungry and feel like I still have to chase my job even if I have it secure.”
The uncertainty that surrounded Jenkins late in the summer, which had his mind racing as he wondered how he would move his entire while learning a new offense and fighting for a roster spot on a different team, seems to have dissipated.
After a season of searching for peace and acceptance, Jenkins left Halas Hall with a smile on his face and joy in his step. Nothing is promised in the NFL. But Jenkins no longer feels the need to question where he’ll be when tomorrow comes.
“I’m happy,” Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago. “I do feel like I have home here.”