CHICAGO – The fans came to see Justin Fields, first and foremost. Bears Family Fest was rocking Tuesday morning at Soldier Field.
But anyone who was paying attention to the trenches noticed that the Bears’ first-team offense was working with two offensive tackles who never have seen a snap of NFL action. Second-year pro Lachavious Simmons and rookie fifth-round draft pick Larry Borom took over tackle duties for veteran quarterback Andy Dalton and the first-team offense.
Through a full week of training camp, neither projected starter at the tackle positions has suited up for practice. Rookie second-round pick Teven Jenkins, who is expected to start at left tackle, is dealing with a back injury. Veteran Germain Ifedi, who is expected to start at right tackle, is on the physically unable to perform list while nursing a hip flexor injury.
Free-agent signing Elijah Wilkinson spent a lot of time at left tackle during the first week of practice with Jenkins out. But Wilkinson was among four players placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday.
That means all four of those players – Wilkinson, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, long snapper Patrick Scales and linebacker Christian Jones – will be out for five days if they were close contacts to a person with COVID-19. They could be out longer if they contracted the virus.
According to the NFL’s updated COVID-19 protocols, vaccinated players no longer have to quarantine after high-risk exposure to COVID-19. Coach Matt Nagy has not addressed the COVID-19-related moves.
It leaves the Bears thin at the tackle position when the team returns to practice Thursday after a day off Wednesday. The injuries to Jenkins and Ifedi are concerning, even if it is early.
Asked Tuesday if Jenkins was days, weeks or months away from a return, Nagy kept his answer vague.
“Probably in the middle, whatever that means,” Nagy said. “Honestly, I don’t know. All I can say is I feel like the arrow is – every day it’s getting a little bit better. It’s not going the other way. So we’ve just got to be smart.”
As a senior at Oklahoma State last season, Jenkins suffered a lower back injury Nov. 21 against rival Oklahoma. He opted out of the remainder of the 2020 season, skipping Oklahoma State’s final three games and its bowl game.
It’s unclear if this current back injury – originally called “back tightness” by the Bears – is related.
“We’ll slowly get him in [practice],” Nagy said. “And then we’ve got to see how he’s feeling. The sooner the better, for sure. I just can’t predict injuries.”
The Bears need Jenkins in practice. The plan was to start a rookie at the most important position on the offensive line. That plan is a risky one as it is. Doing so with limited practice time is asking for trouble.
It leaves the Bears with no real great options at left tackle in the meantime. Wilkinson, 26, primarily has been a right tackle during his NFL career. Borom, 22, the other rookie, started only one game at left tackle in college. Nagy said the Bears want to test Borom now during camp, while it’s OK to make mistakes.
“He’s really light-footed for being such a big man,” Nagy said. “I don’t know if he can play left tackle. That’s why we’re trying to put him there, to see. It’s not easy when you go from the right side to the left side, but I think now is the time to see really what he can do.”
It’s too early to panic. The Bears don’t play a meaningful game until Sept. 12. However, going through camp without two starting tackles is reason for caution.
At this point, there aren’t a lot of quality free-agent tackles on the streets, and the ones who are there wouldn’t come cheap. According to OverTheCap.com, the Bears have only about $6 million in cap space to work with.
“I just know the guys we have on this team right now, they’re the guys I believe in,” Nagy said.