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Improved depth up front pays dividends for Bears

Bears rookie offensive linemen Ja'Tyre Carter (69), Doug Kramer (68) and Braxton Jones (70)
Bears rookie offensive linemen Ja'Tyre Carter (69), Doug Kramer (68) and Braxton Jones (70)

Determined to add depth and create competition at a key position, Bears general manager Ryan Poles selected four offensive linemen on Day 3 of this year's NFL Draft.

"You can never have enough offensive linemen," Poles said after choosing tackle Braxton Jones in the fifth round, tackle Zachary Thomas and center Doug Kramer Jr. in the sixth and guard Ja'Tyre Carter in the seventh. "It's rare to finish a season with the starting five that you started the season with. So, anytime you can increase the volume of the talent in that room, you're getting better."

That increased depth came in handy Friday, with all four rookie draft picks practicing at times with the first-team offense. The next-man-up approach was necessary because center Lucas Patrick and tackle Teven Jenkins were unable to practice and guard Cody Whitehair was given a veteran's day off.

"We had all the rookies in there," said coach Matt Eberflus. "It was good to have those guys in there; great experience for those guys going against the one defensive line and the one defense. I thought that was excellent."

Eberflus acknowledged that Patrick injured his right hand in Thursday's practice. While no timetable was given for his return, the Bears coach said: "He is going to be out for a little bit of time. It's not just a soft tissue injury or something where he might be out a couple days. This is more than that."

Eberflus also revealed that Jenkins is "working through something with the trainers" and is day-to-day. The Bears coach told reporters before the start of training camp that he wasn't going to disclose injury details because it's not required by the NFL until the regular season and he doesn't want to volunteer that information to opponents.

Jones made great strides during the offseason. The 6-5, 310-pounder impressed coaches with his athleticism and football intelligence while working with the No. 1 offense at left tackle in the final six spring practices.

Another candidate to be the starting left tackle is veteran Riley Reiff , who signed with the Bears Tuesday. The 6-6, 305-pounder has been a full-time starter the past nine seasons with the Lions (2013-16), Vikings (2017-20) and Bengals (2021).

"Riley's still working back in," Eberflus said. "He's in a ramp-up phase because he hasn't been in the program and just coming off of where he was. So, what we're going to do is work him into individual, then we start to open the reps: he's got two reps here, four reps here, he's got the whole period, then he's got two periods, so forth and so on. You just progress it as you go."

Patrick's absence gave Kramer a chance to work with the No. 1 offense. Eberflus described the 6-2, 300-pounder, who was a three-year starter at Illinois, as "super smart" and "able to make all the calls."

"Sometimes you think, 'well, mentally it might be too big for somebody to make the 'Mike' points and change protections with the quarterback and make the line calls and be the point guy on that,'" Eberflus said. "It's not. He's able to do that.

"Now, the physical side of it, he has to learn leverage and how to play and jump to the second level under control and be able to stick and stay on linebackers, understanding all those things. That's to be expected. You're going to have that as a rookie. He's learning that and he's athletic enough to do that, and we're excited where he is."

Other options at center include Sam Mustipher and Dieter Eiselen. Mustipher started all 17 games for the Bears at center last season but has been working mostly at right guard since Patrick was signed in March. Eiselen has played a total of six snaps—all on special teams—in three games the past two seasons after signing with the Bears in 2020 as an undrafted free agent from Yale.

Asked how he feels about the possibilities at center while Patrick is sidelined, Eberflus said: "I feel good. Sam's there, who's played the position. Doug's there. Both those guys have done a good job with that. It's great competition in there. Dieter's played a little bit at center. I think it's good for those guys."

The on-the-job training will continue for the four rookies throughout training camp.

"My message to them is to learn; every practice rep, every rep they're going to get in preseason," Eberflus said. "And they're going to be able to learn from these veterans. Lucas is going to help. Cody's going to help. All those guys are going to help those guys to be able to absorb the information and then learn to apply it to the next practice and the next play."

It certainly isn't ideal to be shuffling so many different players onto the starting offensive line, but it's giving the Bears a chance to learn how to deal with adversity.

"A lot of things you can't change in life, right?" Eberflus said. "You get into situations and there they are. They present themselves. And how do you respond to that situation is all that matters. You can't take a magic pill, you can't just invent another player that's going to show up sometimes. You just have what you have and you have to work through it and make it the best you can. And that's what we're doing right now."

Roster Move: In other news Friday, second-year defensive end Sam Kamara was removed from the physically unable to perform list and is now eligible to practice.

The Bears were back on the fields at Halas Hall on Friday for the second public practice of Enjoy Illinois Training Camp.