When the Bears traded up to draft Oklahoma State offensive lineman Teven Jenkins in the second round of the NFL Draft, it was presumed that Jenkins would be plugged into the opening at right tackle — a starter eventually as a rookie if not in Week 1.
But maybe not at right tackle. Bears general manager Ryan Pace notably emphasized Jenkins’ versatility and ability to play the left side — a curious acknowledgement with veteran Charles Leno supposedly entrenched at left tackle.
“He played right tackle. He played left tackle. He’s played both guard spots while he was at Oklahoma State,” Pace said of Jenkins. “We feel that his best fit is at either tackle spot for us.”
Coaches and general managers are loathe to provoke speculation about any starters’ status, so Pace’s reference to Jenkins’ ability to play the left side is a bit unusual. What does that mean for Leno, who has started the Bears’ last 95 games at left tackle?
The Bears are still in a salary-cap crunch after cutting right tackle Bobby Massie and cornerback Kyle Fuller. They still need to make room to sign their draft picks. Leno has always been a potential, if unlikely, cap casualty — the Bears can save $6.2 million in cap space if they cut him, $9 million if they cut him after June 1.
The Bears could play Jenkins at left tackle and live with Germain Ifedi, free-agent Elijah Wilkinson or second-year pro Lachavious Simmons at right tackle. They’re probably better with Leno at left tackle and Jenkins at right. But the cap situation could force them to take a chance on an alternative lineup. And again, Pace’s eagerness to note Jenkins’ play at left tackle — where he made seven starts over the past three seasons — only stokes that speculation.
“That’s the great thing about [Jenkins] is he’s played both guard spots and both tackle spots [at Oklahoma State],” Pace said. “He’s played more right tackle, but there’s two games of starting tackle tape at left tackle in 2019. You go back and look at it — I think it’s Texas Tech and Baylor. He’s at left tackle in both those games. There’s plenty of left tackle tape, so we feel that he can play both tackle positions, and we’ve just got to sort through that.”
Wherever he plays, Jenkins figures to be a starter in 2021. The Bears have a hole to fill. Jenkins was rated a first-round talent, and not just by the Bears. And players drafted in his range often start as rookies. Of the 13 offensive tackles drafted from 20th to 50th overall in the past four seasons, eight of them were Week 1 starters as a rookie; 10 of them by Week 2.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a post-draft cliche for the college coach to think his guy will be great in the NFL. But Gundy’s enthusiastic endorsement of Jenkins was notable even by that standard.
Gundy said he rates Jenkins ahead of former Oklahoma State offensive lineman Russell Okung — the sixth overall pick of the 2010 draft by the Seahawks — as an NFL prospect. Okung is a two-time Pro Bowl player who started at left tackle on the Seahawks’ back-to-back Super Bowl teams in 2013 and 2014.
“Teven is more talented than him in my opinion. He’s just scratching the surface of his ability,” Gundy said of Jenkins in a videoconference with Bears beat reporters Saturday. “He came from Topeka, Kan. When he arrived, I don’t think he had any idea what college football was like. And just in the last year, he’s finally developed some toughness and grit that will benefit him playing in the NFL.
“I would not be surprised in two years if people are looking back and saying he is potentially the best offensive linemen taken in this draft. He has the phenomenal athleticism; strength; he’s highly intelligent; and he’s just started to really get into football over the last 18 months.”
The fresh-faced Jenkins is an interesting prospect, even Gundy admitted a little deceiving. “If you saw a mugshot of him, he looks like he’s going to engineering class,” Gundy said. But over his five years at Oklahoma State, the 6-5, 317-pound Jenkins has developed an awareness of just how good he can be, with a mean streak he now embraces.
And he responds to a challenge. “Our offensive staff, particularly our o-line coach, challenged him with the personnel he was facing against Texas,” Gundy said. “And we knew in order for us to be successful offensively, he had to hold his own on the edge and he did. Essentially, his guys didn’t make any plays at all.”
The NFL is a different world, of course. So it remains to be seen if Jenkins will respond the same way at this level. But at least the Bears knew he’s got it in him.
“Teven is an interesting young man,” Gundy said. “You look at him and you say, ‘It took that long for you to realize that you were a special talent,’ and it really did with him because he had a such a laid back personality and I don’t think he ever saw himself being that good of a football player.
“That’s why I’m saying within the next couple years, the NFL is going to be really shocked at what you have. Because when we asked him and challenged him to be as good as he can be and dominate a player, we had a lot of success with him on those days.”