Emma: Evaluating the Bears' rookies and projecting their long-term fit


LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- As the Bears’ scouting team prepared for the third and final day of the 2022 NFL Draft last spring, first-year general manager Ryan Poles had an exercise to conduct for those in the draft room.

Poles brought each scout to the front of the room and had them write down the names of three prospects who were still available in whom they felt a strong conviction. He then made five trades that day, eventually turning the five selections he inherited when hired in January into an 11-man draft class.

“Any time you have more ammunition, the better in terms of getting hits,” Poles said after completing the draft.

Grading an NFL Draft class is an imperfect science, especially within the first year. But NFL scouts and executives often say a successful draft will result in two or three long-term starters being selected among a team's usual seven allotted picks.

In this rebuilding season guided by Poles and first-year coach Matt Eberflus, the Bears have played 13 rookies, including all but one of their 11 draft picks (offensive lineman Zachary Thomas, who was selected in the sixth round, was claimed off the practice squad by the Rams). Fourteen first-year players are currently on Chicago’s 53-man roster, four are on the practice squad and two more are on injured reserve.

As the rookies endure trial by fire this season, how does the Bears' draft class look and what do these players project to be as Chicago hopes to open a competitive window soon? Let's evaluate each one to assess the progress.

Note: The grading scale features “surefire long-term starter,” “likely long-term starter,” “potential long-term starter” and "potential depth piece.” The list doesn't include offensive lineman Doug Kramer (injured reserve), punter Trenton Gill or Thomas.

CB Kyler Gordon – Round 2, No. 39 overall
With his first draft pick in Chicago, Poles took Gordon with the belief he could be an instant starter in the secondary. Gordon was then shifted to the nickel position, where he has primarily played this season. Gordon has had growing pains as a rookie, but the Bears are confident in what his future holds.

Early verdict: Likely long-term starter

S Jaquan Brisker – Round 2, No. 48 overall
Many were surprised the Bears went with a pair of defensive backs to open their draft, but they had glaring needs and Poles prioritized stability in the secondary. Brisker has played at a high level for most of this season and has inspired hope that he'll be a difference-maker for years to come.

Early verdict: Surefire long-term starter

WR Velus Jones Jr. Round 3, No. 71 overall
Despite the Bears lacking playmakers around quarterback Justin Fields, Jones has struggled to earn a role in the offense. He had a hamstring injury to open the season and has just three catches in seven games. Jones was also a healthy scratch for a pair of contests earlier in November. It's too soon to write Jones off, but his rookie season has been a great disappointment.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

LT Braxton Jones – Round 5, Pick No. 168
Jones opened the season as the Bears’ full-time starter at left tackle, and he’s the team’s lone offensive lineman to play 100% of the snaps on offense. Jones grades out 24th among 58 eligible tackles in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus. Jones has plenty of room to improve, but he's winning over this regime.

Early verdict: Likely long-term starter

DE Dominique Robinson – Round 5, No. 174 overall
Robinson had 1.5 sacks in his NFL debut in the season opener. He hasn't recorded a single sack in the 11 games since. Robinson hasn't hit a rookie wall, Bears defensive line coach Travis Smith recently said, but he pointed to the need for continued improvement. The team hopes to see more from Robinson in its final five games.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

RB Trestan Ebner – Round 6, No. 203 overall
As the Bears have dealt with running back injuries, Ebner hasn't taken advantage. He has 24 carries for just 54 yards and seems to have fallen out of favor as the backup after veteran Darrynton Evans' strong performance this past Sunday. Ebner needs to do more in order to earn a place in the backfield mix for next season.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

OL Ja’Tyre Carter Round 6, No. 226 overall
Carter has played in just two games this season, logging four special teams snaps. He hasn't played on offense and doesn’t seem close to earning a role. But there has been development behind the scenes, and the Bears hope to see him emerge in practice.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

S Elijah Hicks – Round 7, No. 254 overall
Hicks stepped in for his first work on defense last Sunday after starting safety Eddie Jackson suffered a Lisfranc injury. Hicks played 39 snaps and showed he isn't quite ready for that role yet, although the Bears might not have a choice but to play him down the stretch.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

LB Jack Sanborn – Undrafted free agent
Signed by the Bears as an undrafted free agent, Sanborn earned his place on the roster and has thrived with his starting opportunity at middle linebacker in recent weeks. He has 43 combined tackles over four starts after Chicago dealt linebacker Roquan Smith to Baltimore. Sanborn seems best-suited in the Mike linebacker spot and projects as a potential starter for the coming years.

Early verdict: Likely long-term starter

CB Jaylon Jones – Undrafted free agent
An undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss, Jones has played in all 12 games and worked 33% of the Bears’ defensive snaps at cornerback.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

CB Josh Blackwell – Undrafted free agent
Blackwell earned his place with the Bears on special teams and has worked 61% of the team’s special teams snaps.

Early verdict: Potential depth piece

Rookie class verdict
While there's much development to take place still, the Bears have a handful of potential building blocks among the 13 rookies and counting who have played for them this season.

Brisker seems like he'll be a surefire starter in the Bears' secondary for a number of years, and Gordon likely will have a similar role. Poles needs to evaluate whether Jones is the best long-term fit at left tackle while taking inventory on the offensive line, though he has merited the chance to return as a starter. Sanborn has also shown he deserves consideration as the middle linebacker moving forward.

Jones' lack of production is certainly concerning, but he has five games to finish his rookie campaign strong. Given the Bears' need at wide receiver, his ascension would be important.

While it's still early, there's reason for optimism and belief that Poles turned his draft capital in 2022 into some hits for the Bears' future.

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

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