Bears’ Pace-era holdovers have plenty to prove

Ryan Poles’ first six months as the Bears’ general manager have been marked by a down-to-the-studs roster clean-out that will give him what he arguably needs most — a fresh start.

Poles traded linebacker Khalil Mack, cut nose tackle Eddie Goldman and had little to no interest in free agents who could have been productive in 2022 — guard James Daniels, wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Akiem Hicks and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols among them.

Poles still has a foundation of players he inherited from Ryan Pace, with linebacker Roquan Smith topping that list. But most of them are young players more likely to blossom in more effective offensive and defensive schemes — quarterback Justin Fields, tight end Cole Kmet, wide receiver Darnell Mooney and running back David Montgomery on offense; cornerback Jaylon Johnson, defensive end Trevis Gipson and defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga on defense.

In fact, only four Pace-era starters who are still around have played more than three years in the NFL — defensive end Robert Quinn (11), guard Cody Whitehair (six), safety Eddie Jackson (five) and Smith (four). And Quinn is not likely to stay for too much longer.

(Six months after Poles took over, the Bears have just 12 of the 23 players who started eight or more games last season — and 27 of the 63 players on the roster at the end of last season. At the same juncture of Pace’s tenure as GM in 2015, the Bears had 16 of 23 starters who had played eight games or more in 2014, and 42 of the 63 players on the roster at the end of the previous season.)

And then there’s Teven Jenkins. On the overall list of discards (Goldman, Daniels) and keepers (Smith, Mooney), the second-year offensive lineman looks like the ultimate ‘tweener. It’s hard to tell exactly what Poles thinks of him.

Jenkins epitomizes the transition the Bears are in. A projected first-round pick who surprisingly dropped to the Bears at No. 39 overall in the second round in 2021, he could blossom into a nice parting gift from the Pace regime. Or, after a difficult rookie season in which he played only five games on offense because of back surgery, he could be cast off if players drafted by Poles emerge quickly.

Had Pace survived the 2021 season, Jenkins would have been locked in as a foundation piece in 2022 at either right or left tackle. Under Poles, he’s already in limbo — demoted to second-team right tackle behind 2021 fifth-round pick Larry Borom in OTAs and veteran minicamp after opening the first practice of the Eberflus era as the starter.

Truth be told, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s what in the offseason. Eberflus made it clear that under offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and offensive line coach Chris Morgan, the Bears would mix-and-match players throughout the line to find the right combination. And he acknowledged that it’s hard to tell anything about any of them until they’re going full speed in pads in training camp and the preseason.

And Jenkins is even a bigger X-factor after losing 20 pounds — from 345 to 325 — to fit the “lighter, quicker” body type Poles wants in his offensive linemen. Jenkins said he dropped his body fat from 33% last season to 24% this season.

It remains to be seen if Jenkins will be better at the lighter weight. Even he doesn’t know. When you’re lighter, you’re quicker — but if you’re weaker, it might be a wash.

“That’s all to tell once we start putting on pads,” Jenkins said. “Everybody knows that.”

Training camp figures to tell the tale.But the reality is that every Pace holdover — including Fields and Smith — will have to prove themselves to the new regime. And there are other Pace-acquired players in the same position as Jenkins who are getting a chance to excel in a new scheme or will be quickly dismissed as a remnant of the Pace era and replaced by Poles acquisitions.

Here’s a look at four others:

DE Trevis Gipson

He has a golden opportunity to blossom, not only based on his production last season (seven sacks), but also because he’s returning to the position he mostly played at Tulsa.

RB Khalil Herbert

Not only was he productive in both starts in place of David Montgomery last year (37 carries, 197 yards, one touchdown), but he could excel in a Getsy offense that likely will rely more on two backs and be more of a true run-first attack.

OL Larry Borom

The 2021 fifth-round pick held his own in eight starts as a rookie and will open training camp as the starting right tackle. The Bears clearly like what they’ve seen so far. And Borom also can play right guard if others emerge at the tackle spots.

DT Khyiris Tonga

A seventh-round pick in 2021, Tonga played 216 snaps at nose tackle as a rookie, due in part to Eddie Goldman’s lackluster performance. He’s a dedicated nose tackle (in college and the NFL) who’s being given a chance at defensive tackle in Eberflus’ scheme. He’s a free roll of the dice for Eberflus and coordinator Alan Williams.

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