The idea of Teven Jenkins playing this year was almost unthinkable after undergoing back surgery in August. And while we’re still some time away from seeing him take the field, the fact that we’re already discussing next steps feels like a win.
Moving forward, the Bears have questions they must answer before crossing the bridge from opening the practice window to suiting up on game day. So, let’s answer them…
How Soon Can He Come Back?
Step One is already underway, as the Bears opened Jenkins’ 21-day practice window. This could could ultimately result in activating the Oklahoma State product from IR. Getting to this point is a major first step. Reaching the point where Jenkins could practice with his teammates felt like an unreasonable ask after surgery. But there is still more hard work ahead. The goal seems to be to get Jenkins on the field before season’s end. That’s reasonable enough, right?
So … how soon can he play?
The Bears can activate Jenkins from injured reserve and have him available as early as this upcoming Sunday. But before we get too excited, let’s underscore how Jenkins hasn’t done team activities since June. Sure, Jenkins has put in work sprinting at practice and with some pre-game on-field workouts. And those are important steps in the rehabilitation process. But there is no substitute for practice drills and organized team activities. There is no need to rush him, and I think the Bears and their medical staff knows that much.
With that being said, my expectation is for Jenkins to use the full 21-day window. It gives the team ample time to evaluate where Jenkins is physically and mentally (in terms of understanding the playbook and his responsibilities). As a bonus, it also gives Chicago’s decision makers time to figure out where Jenkins fits short-term and long-term. And finally, exhausting the max amount of time allows the Bears to figure out where other pieces on the line fit in the grand scheme of things. It would be cool to see this:
All in all, going through the full 21-day window would put Jenkins in a position to return in Week 14 against the Packers. If that is how the cookie crumbles, Jenkins could be back for five regular-season games. And that would be a wonderful development.
Where Should He Play?
ICYMI: Bears OL Coach Juan Castillo gave us an inkling as to where Jenkins will play this season:
The Bears Will Give Teven Jenkins Practice Reps at Left *AND* Right Tacklehttps://t.co/U4BbqF2I4B
— Bleacher Nation Bears (@BN_Bears) November 16, 2021
And yet, because (1) Jason Peters has been the Bears’ best lineman and (2) Larry Borom has been playing well since his return from IR, where Jenkins will play immediately is still up for debate.
How Much Playing Time is There For Jenkins?
The good news is that the Bears can get creative with Jenkins, his playing time, and how he is deployed.
Let’s get weird. I mean, it’s not was if there isn’t a variety of ways to get him these snaps. Use Jenkins in goal line packages. Put him on both sides of the line to get him experience as a bookend tackle. Give him some experience lining up to Peters’ left, which gives Jenkins an opportunity to learn to play with someone on his right. Do the same thing on the opposite side of the line, which would give him a chance to learn to play with someone on his left. Put him in as a blocking “tight end” in a way like the team did with Alex Bars when the team was running short at the position during their win against the Raiders.
For all of its flaws, it is worth noting this coaching staff has shown a willingness to be creative in developing draft-pick linemen. For instance, remember the James Daniels plan? In 2018, the Bears began the year with Eric Kush starting at left guard. Daniels didn’t take his first offensive snaps until Week 4, which began a three-week stretch in which he was in on 29, 44, and 47 offensive snaps. The slow build eventually led to Daniels getting a full snap share starting in Week 7. And he haas been a starter ever since. Chicago could easily do this with Jenkins. Start him off on a pitch-count as he gets going, then unleash him when he is fully ready to go. We’ve seen this work, so it’s something the Bears should keep in mind
Should the Bears Even Entertain This?
In short, yes. And Matt Nagy gushing over Jenkins is one reason why:
Matt Nagy said of Teven Jenkins: "He’s a competitor. You all saw that when we drafted him. You see the type of mean streak he has. You see how much he loves football, how much his teammates really appreciate him and he appreciates them."
— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) November 15, 2021
One thing you don’t want to coach out of a player is aggressiveness. In that vein, it feels like it would be counter-productive to start the clock on Jenkins’ return and build him up, only to not play him if he is healthy. Not only would that be a rough look for the team, it might bother a player who put all that work in without the end-game reward of seeing game action. There is always a light at the end of a tunnel. And eat their core, players want to play. In other words, if Jenkins is healthy and ready to roll by the end of this 21-day period, let him play.
Getting Jenkins playing time this season might look like a small step, but it could lead to a big leap down the road.
In the end, the Bears need to strike a healthy balance between workload management and development. Remember, Jenkins is coming off an injury serious enough to require surgery at the start of the year. It cannot be stressed enough that rushing Jenkins back or giving him too much, too soon could be problematic for 2021 and beyond. Much like the Bears’ goals should be to do right for Justin Fields’ long-term development, they should be doing the same for Jenkins.
With that in mind, the Bears would be wise to ease him into the lineup and build up his reps slowly. The best way to go about this might be to treat whatever games Jenkins is available for like they were preseason contests. Start with a handful of snaps here and there, then build upon that until he proves to be ready for a full workload. That way, the team can work the development angle, while also minimizing risk of injury, and not tweaking any possible chemistry this current group is building toward.
Ultimately, I’m just glad there are paths to Jenkins’ return to the playing surface. And that it looks like it could be as soon as this season makes it that much nicer.