Emma: In Braxton Jones, Bears may have a 'cornerstone' at left tackle


LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- One day after he was introduced as the Bears’ new general manager in late January, Ryan Poles took a flight down to the Senior Bowl in south Alabama and came across a raw prospect in whom he saw potential.

That was Southern Utah offensive tackle Braxton Jones, who despite making a big leap in competition at the Senior Bowl continued to hold his own. Poles noted how each time Jones lined up against a prospect from a powerhouse college program, he wasn’t fazed. That stuck with Poles.

Days prior to the NFL Draft in late April, Poles dispatched Bears assistant offensive line coach Austin King to Salt Lake City as the organization affirmed its faith in Jones. The Bears then selected Jones in the fifth round, and he has gone on to start all 15 games at left tackle for Chicago this season. He's the lone Bears player to play 100% of the snaps on his side of the football.

The 23-year-old Jones has asserted himself well as an NFL rookie. He ranks 16th out of 58 tackles in Pro Football Focus' grades and is the top-ranked rookie tackle – from a class that featured six tackles selected in the first round.

As the Bears head toward a pivotal offseason in which Poles and his front office need to significantly upgrade the team at key positions, has Jones earned his place as the long-term left tackle?

"I want to put in the work in the offseason to be that guy, a cornerstone for this organization,” Jones said Monday. “Obviously, I got a lot of work to do.

“I want to be here as long as possible, and I feel like I can be a cornerstone for that left tackle position."

Poles and the Bears certainly hope for that too. In addition to hitting on picks at the top of the draft, rebuilding teams also need to find a few building blocks in the later rounds. The rival Packers have enjoyed that type of stability from 10-year left tackle David Bakhtiari, a fourth-round pick in 2013 who has solidified that position in Green Bay with Pro Bowl-caliber play.

The Bears have also been reminded in this 3-12 campaign that they have pressing needs all across their roster, so Poles needs to be proactive in addressing other positions in the offseason. Quarterback Justin Fields needs better wide receiver talent and stronger protection from the rest of the offensive line. Coach Matt Eberflus’ defense has struggled in large part because it lacks disruptive players up front.

With Jones, the Bears have found promise and fit at left tackle. There will be enticing options to upgrade the offensive line this offseason, including in the NFL Draft with prospects like Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, Alabama’s Tyler Steen and Ohio State’s Paris Johnson. Poles and his scouting team will prioritize the best player available, especially at the top of the draft.

But for all the Bears must do to overhaul their roster entering the second year of a rebuild, Jones' continued ascension represents a potential cornerstone.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.

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