Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself," Bears offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. told CSNChicago.com when asked about the personal significant of the 2017 season.

Leno Jr. is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and since Jermon Bushrod injured his back in Week 3 of the the 2015 season, Leno, Jr. has been the starter at left tackle in the 29 games since. Leno Jr. has established himself as consistent and durable, but public opinions on him outside of Halas Hall cast doubt on how high the ceiling is for the final (seventh round) draft pick of the Phil Emery regime.

Pro Football Focus’ grading system has its fans and detractors. While the Boise State product showed improvement in 2016 (70.4 grade) compared to 2015 (46.1), they ranked him 44th out of 64 offensive tackles. Also, according to PFF, Leno Jr. and right tackle Bobby Massie allowed 73 quarterback pressures and committed 14 penalties, while grading out poorly in the run game as a tandem.

Yet there’s also the overall picture to look at. The team allowed just 26 sacks, ninth-fewest in the NFL despite three different starting quarterbacks. Football Outsiders ranked the Bears offensive line seventh in pass protection and eighth in rushing. But critics of the two tackles will say the main reason for those rankings is the strength in the middle, between Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long (for half a season, at least).  Not that Leno, Jr. hasn’t been closely evaluated already, but as his future, and payday, looms. It’ll be an even more interesting watch this season.

“I’m always ready to take that next step,” said the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder who’ll turn 26 when the Bears host the Vikings on Monday, Oct. 9. “ Every year you can take a step. Whether it’s your rookie year to your second year, third year to your fourth, or ninth year to your tenth, you’re always trying to take another step, always get better. That’s my job right now, that’s my goal.”

And he’ll have to do it under his third different offensive line coach in his four years, as Jeremiah Washburn takes over for Dave Magazu. Leno Jr. told me there have been mostly minor tweaks and adjustments when it comes to new position coaches. He was most noticeable (that’s a bad thing), late in the season, when he was beaten a few times for sacks, but that didn’t do much to cloud his overall performance in his boss’ mind.

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“To be honest, Leno was a real pleasant surprise, really exceeded expectations there,” general manager Ryan Pace said back on Jan. 4. “And I thought as he gained confidence, he got better and better. He’s very athletic, he’s long, got good balance. So (he) did very well. We have positive vibes about him coming out of the season.”

Leno, Jr. will make about $1.8 million this season as he finishes out his rookie deal. But as he enters this contract year, there are currently 14 left tackles in the NFL (including all the so-called “elite”) making an average of at least $10 million annually on their current contracts:

PLAYER | TEAM | MONEY

Trent Williams (WSH), $13.6

Russell Okung (LAC), $13.25

Terron Armstead (NO), $13

Tyron Smith (DAL), $12.2

Cordy Glenn (BUF), $12

Eric Fisher (KC), $12

David Bakhtiari (GB), $12

Riley Reiff (MIN), $11.75

Joe Thomas (CLE), $11.5

Andrew Whitworth (LAR), $11.25

Matt Kalil (CAR), $11.1

Anthony Castonzo (IND), $10.95

Jason Peters (PHI), $10.8

Nate Solder (NE), $10

Other left tackles averaging less than $10 million annually on their current deals include Houston’s Duane Brown, San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Atlanta's Jake Matthews and Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan. Plus, keep in mind here that Reiff (Detroit) and Kalil (Minnesota) were first-round picks by Bears' NFC North rivals deemed not good enough to keep around. Yet they still found believers willing to write a big check elsewhere.  If not the Bears, Leno, Jr. may find similar interest elsewhere with a season comparable to 2016. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. 11 years ago, Pace and the Saints made Northwestern’s Zach Strief a seventh round pick, and he’s hung around — not becoming a starter until his sixth season, yet being a linchpin at right tackle since.

From the above list, only the 29-year-old Solder is a pending free agent, and it’s hard to see the Patriots letting him walk, though Bill Belichick has done stranger things that’ve worked out in the end. Leno Jr. is the next-best option, because the others really aren’t. Oakland’s Donald Penn is 34, while the Chargers’ Chris Hairston, the Ravens’ James Hurst, and the Dolphins’ Sam Young have all started less than half time they’ve been in the league.

If the Bears let Leno Jr. walk and look toward the draft, Notre Dame senior Mike McGlinchey is generally regarded as the highest-rated left tackle heading into the fall with Texas’ Connor Williams, Orlando Brown of Oklahoma, Mitch Hyatt of Clemson and Martinas Rankin of Mississippi State owning various first and second-round grades. 

Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, figure the Bears will still have needs to be addressed in the draft, “best available” or not. If he doesn’t have a believer in Pace already, another step forward by Leno Jr. could earn himself a payday, and stability — personally, and for the team as they figure out how to get the best protection possible for their quarterback of the future.

For Mitch Trubisky, receiving snaps isn't a center of attention during OTAs

For Mitch Trubisky, receiving snaps isn't a center of attention during OTAs

With a finite number of coaching opportunities before training camp, the less time the Bears have to commit to working with Mitch Trubisky on receiving snaps under center, the better. So if one-half of the Bears’ snapping battery says it hasn’t been a big deal, that’s likely a promising sign for the highest-drafted quarterback this franchise has had in 65 years. 

Center Cody Whitehair said Trubisky’s effort has been there to transition into taking snaps under center, which is the first hurdle for a college spread quarterback to clear. 

“It’s pretty natural, really,” Whitehair said. “Usually, they come in, they’re hungry and they figure it out.” 

Trubisky has been working on taking snaps under center since January, when he declared for the draft after one season running North Carolina’s offense almost exclusively from the shotgun. For what it’s worth, the Bears ran 63 percent of their plays from the shotgun in 2017, which was about average for the league. 

“It's been a seamless transition,” Trubisky said after being drafted. “I feel like working under center has helped me become even more consistent with my footwork.”

Receiving a snap is, seemingly, a basic part of being a quarterback, but it’s not something that’s a given anymore with so many college offenses running more than 90 percent of their plays from the shotgun. 

Still, there are more important things for Dowell Loggains and Dave Ragone to be spending their time on with Trubisky to get him ready for training camp next month. And parsing the words of Whitehair, receiving snaps isn’t getting in the way of that work. 

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

This week marks the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, depending on how you want to look at organized team activities (OTA’s), the third stage of the NFL offseason culminating in the mandatory minicamp June 13-15. Teams are allowed a total of 10 OTA sessions, giving coaches a final look at players before the break until training camp convenes in late July.

The sessions also mark the first time that the players, who were finishing college semesters this time a year ago, will be introduced to the REAL NFL, the professionals already part of the August fraternity to which the draft picks and undrafted free agents aspire.

Well, maybe it's not the true first time some of the rookies will “meet” the pros.

During the brief rookie minicamp, offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn did as all the coaches do: show his position group the film of them going through their drills. In the interest of accelerating the young players’ learning curve, however, Washburn went a step further.

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He followed the rookie film with the same drills being run by the pros, meaning the rookies could see how Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair and other vets did those same drills.

The difference was startling – as Washburn intended. The kids were being shown a new meaning for what they might have thought was “maximum effort.”

“That’s one thing coach ‘Wash and coach Ben [Wilkerson] have really been pushing to us — just making sure we’re doing everything to maximum effort, and always finishing near the ball,” said rookie lineman Jordan Morgan. “I feel like that’s stuff you hear at every level of football, but more so now, especially, it being the NFL.”

Rules limit the amount of work allowed vs. opposition, meaning how much Morgan might learn by going against a Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman or Pernell McPhee. But learning the every-play intensity at the NFL level may be difficult to comprehend for players who’ve obviously seen it done this hard before.

“The way the veteran guys run [the drills] is the way you’re supposed to do it,” Washburn said. “There’s a style of play, a work ethic you have to put into this. You can’t just get away with things because the guy in front of you is as good or better than you are.

“Scheme-wise, that has not been a problem, the way it has been with some rookies I’ve had in the past. It’s the day-to-day intensity and focus you have to put in for 16 weeks. That is a big adjustment.”

The NFL is replete with examples of college players arriving with elite physical abilities but not taking effort and learning intensity to the professional level. The Bears used the No. 8 overall pick of the 2001 draft on wide receiver David Terrell, who’d dominated on raw ability at the college level but never developed beyond a mid-level wideout.

Washburn saw something similar while coaching offensive line for the Detroit Lions.

“I had a rookie guard in Detroit who ate Hot Pockets and played video games at night,” Washburn recalled. “His rookie year he got by, played OK, but then had a big slump his sophomore year and said, ‘I gotta change my ways.’

“He absolutely changed everything and now he’s an absolute pro.”

If Bears rookies do anything video with their nights, Washburn intends for those videos to be the ways the pros do it