Justin Fields is and will continue to be the most important player on the Chicago Bears’ roster for the foreseeable future.
But if there’s another player who could have a significant impact on the rest of the 2021 season — and, more specifically — what happens at the conclusion of the 2021 season, it’s Teven Jenkins.
Jenkins, who was drafted 28 picks after Fields in the 2021 NFL Draft, was supposed to be the cornerstone left tackle who would start Week 1. Instead, he surprisingly wasn’t ready for training camp because of back issues and, after rehab and treatment failed, eventually needed back surgery in August.
Monday, Jenkins finally made it back to the practice field for the first time since the offseason program.
“It’s been awhile since Teven’s put the pads on, so we’ll start there,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Monday. “Now we get to work through and see where he’s at conditioning-wise, physically where he’s at. It’s just gonna be, honestly, really, an hour-by-hour, day-by-day process with him. But it’s definitely a good thing to have, and we’re excited to get him out there.”
Considering the impact of back surgery on an offensive lineman and the Bears’ current logjam on the offensive line, there’s no guarantee Jenkins even sees the field this season. The Bears have three weeks to either activate him off injured reserve or shut him down for the season.
But if Jenkins is able to play, it would be tough for the Bears to leave him on the bench. The Bears’ offseason plan was to rebuild the edges of their offensive line with two draft picks and the early returns on fifth-round pick Larry Borom Jr. at right tackle are promising. If Jenkins pans out, it’s a win for everyone involved, especially the general manager, head coach and quarterback.
Here’s how his recovery and development could have a big impact on the three key members of the organization:
General manager Ryan Pace
For all the criticism Pace receives, his 2021 draft class looks promising, but a lot of that hinges on Jenkins. The Justin Fields pick could be franchise-altering, and Pace may have hit more late-round home runs with Borom and running back Khalil Herbert (sixth round). If Jenkins returns to the field and is able to give the offensive line a boost, that would give Pace four really good picks at three high-impact positions.
On the other hand, if Jenkins isn’t able to return or plays poorly, then that leaves behind more questions about drafting another injured player.
The full evaluation of Pace’s seven years in Chicago is more nuanced than some fans want it to be, and the most recent draft class is a significant piece of that puzzle.
Head coach Matt Nagy
One good half in Pittsburgh doesn’t change multiple years of struggles, but there is some credence to the thought that Nagy’s offense could improve over the last eight games if Fields continues to ascend.
And the offensive line is a big part of that. Where Jenkins fits in is complicated. If you didn’t have a rookie quarterback, it might not be hard to bench 39-year-old Jason Peters for a promising rookie tackle in the middle of a lost season, but Peters has been the team’s best lineman and brings a ton of experience and consistency on Fields’ blindside. Meanwhile, it would be foolish to take Borom off the field at right tackle.
Peters played some guard for the Eagles last year, but it probably makes more sense to start Jenkins inside to get his feet wet before moving him to tackle. Then again, what do you do with Cody Whitehair or James Daniels? Neither are dominant guards, but neither deserve to lose their jobs either. So do you bench Sam Mustipher and move Daniels or Whitehair back to center? We’ve seen that story before and changing centers on Fields mid-season isn’t exactly a smart move. Mustipher has made some mistakes this season, but he’s highly regarded for his football IQ and he and Fields have developed chemistry you probably don’t want to mess with.
How Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and offensive line coach Juan Castillo navigate the situation over the next few weeks will be key. Nagy needs to give Fields the best offensive line he can give him, but the thought of starting two rookies at tackle and another at quarterback is scary. This might be a situation where an injury dictates what happens, but it’s up to the coaching staff to get the most out of Jenkins this season without hurting the line as a whole or putting Fields in a vulnerable position.
Quarterback Justin Fields
Fields has the least amount of say in this situation, but it certainly affects him. It’s not surprising that he has played better in the games the offensive line has played well.
That said, the dream scenario for the Bears is that they drafted their franchise quarterback and two cornerstone offensive tackles in April and it would be nice to see the three of them start developing trust and chemistry on the field.
Jenkins’ situation is complicated and how the Bears handle it over the next eight weeks will be crucial — not just in 2021, but beyond.