Can upstarts that Matt Eberflus, Ryan Poles developed in 2022 keep it going?

The Bears are no longer looking for players who are good enough to play for a 3-14 team. These players now have to show they could make it anywhere.

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 Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles talking before a game.

Eberflus (left) and Poles (right) developed several surprising players to fill significant roles.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Amid a mostly futile season in which the Bears plunged to the bottom of the NFL, general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus had a few developmental success stories.

The most notable were left tackle Braxton Jones and linebacker Jack Sanborn, whom they plucked from relative college football obscurity and turned into starters. Jones was a late fifth-round pick from Southern Utah who quickly claimed the top spot on the offensive line and hasn’t let go. Sanborn made the team as an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin and took Roquan Smith’s job when the Bears traded him.

Those were important gains for a roster with a lot of holes to fill, but it’s unclear how significant those discoveries will be once the team is ready to compete. Maybe Jones, Sanborn and others rose so quickly because the roster had so many holes. Now that the Bears have added talent instead of subtracting it, they’ll find out exactly how solid those successes were.

“You have to prove yourself every time you go out there,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn shined in preseason games, immediately grabbed a regular role on special teams and ended up starting six games. The appearance of a fairly wide-open opportunity was one reason he chose the Bears when teams started calling after the draft.

If he thought making the team a year ago was hard, now he’s fighting for snaps at a position in which the Bears spent $92 million on free agents Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards and drafted Noah Sewell out of Oregon in the fifth round. Sewell went ninth among inside linebackers.

The Bears also have hungry players such as undrafted rookie Micah Baskerville looking to make the same leap Sanborn did.

Jones, meanwhile, has defended his position. He earned the first-string left tackle spot in organized team activities, then saw the Bears sign 10-year starter Riley Reiff right before camp. But Jones never flinched and left no doubt he still deserved the starting job.

The challengers came again this offseason, albeit hypothetically. Indirectly, the Bears compared him against every offensive tackle in the draft this year. They locked in on -Darnell Wright at No. 10, but with the -vision of Jones staying at left tackle and Wright playing on the right.

Perhaps Jones wouldn’t have surged to the top so quickly, but that he did surely accelerated his development in a way that learning from the bench couldn’t have provided.

“All those experiences might not have happened if he was on a different type of team,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “But fortunately he got that opportunity and he’s nailed it. He just goes about his business and soaks it all up and keeps kicking [butt]. He’s got a bright future.”

Transitioning Teven Jenkins from left tackle to right guard was another achievement, and the Bears need to find out if that translates in Jenkins’ latest move to left guard. They must determine whether late-round picks Dominique Robinson at defensive end and Elijah Hicks at safety can persist as rotation players and whether undrafted surprises at cornerback, Jaylon Jones (four starts) and Josh Blackwell (one), will make the roster.

It’s a completely different grading scale for them this season. The Bears are no longer looking for players who are good enough to play for a 3-14 team. These players have to show they could make it anywhere.

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