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.

[MORE: Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?]

“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.

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

The Bears have found success in the undrafted free agent market with the likes of wide receiver Cameron Meredith, linebacker Christian Jones and safety Harold Jones-Quartey among others during GM Ryan Pace's tenure with the club. 

Pace and the Bears hope to continue that trend and uncover some hidden gems in this year's crop of undrafted free agents.

Ahead of rookie minicamp this weekend, the Bears announced on Thursday they have signed 13 undrafted free agents.

Here's a look at some of the notable UDFA's the Bears signed:

Tanner Gentry (WR), Wyoming: The 6-foot-2 wideout ran a 4.40-yard dash at his Pro Day and had 72 catches for 1,326 yards with 14 touchdowns for the Cowboys last season. Gentry also led the country in deep targets (49) last season.

Dieugot Joseph (OT), Florida International: After a switch from defensive end to the offensive line, Joseph became a stalwart at left tackle for the Panthers. Joseph was named honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2016.

Andy Phillips (K), Utah: A former member of the United States National Ski Team, Phillips walked on to the Utah football team in 2012. As the Utes starting kicker from 2013-16, Phillips converted 84 percent of field goals and missed just one extra point.

Freddie Stevenson (FB), Florida State: For three seasons Stevenson served as the lead blocker for All-American running back Dalvin Cook. A former four-star recruit as a linebacker, Stevenson had 292 total yards and seven touchdowns with the Seminoles.

Kermit Whitfield (WR), Florida State: One of the most explosive athletes in the country, Whitfield accumulated 2,386 yards as a kick returner at Florida State. Whitfield broke the ACC record for yards per return (36.4) during his freshman season.

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Jhajuan Seales (WR), Oklahoma State: Seales has the ability to climb the ladder and make the contested catches with a 41.5-inch vertical leap. After subpar sophomore and junior seasons, Seales rebounded as a senior with 37 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns.

Franko House (TE), Ball State: House was a standout basketball player for the Cardinals. House will use his 6-foot-6, 247-pound frame to make the transition to the gridiron after not playing the sport since his senior year of high school.

Joel Bouagnon (RB), Northern Illinois: The ex-Huskies running back couldn't quite replicate his junior year numbers, but still posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry with nine total touchdowns in 2016.

Rashaad Coward (DL), Old Dominion: Coward was a second-team All Conference USA selection last season, finishing with 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Coward fits the Bears 3-4 base defense as somebody who could rotate either inside or outside on the defensive line.

Mitchell Kirsch (OL), James Madison: Kirsch was the starter at right tackle for the Dukes since 2014, and was named an FCS All-American last year.

Hendrick Ekpe (LB), Minnesota: Ekpe started 11 games for the Gophers and notched 28 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Ekpe played defensive end at Minnesota, but with his size (6-foot3, 245 pounds) he'll play outside linebacker for the Bears.

Isaiah Irving (LB), San Jose State: The 6-foot-3, 255 pound Irving led San Jose State with seven sacks as a senior.

Alex Searce (LB), Coastal Carolina: Searce was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan National Defensive Player of the Year Award. He had eight sacks for the Chanticleers in 2016.

Below are some standout players who have been invited to rookie minicamp:

Denard Robinson (RB): The artist formerly known as "Shoelace" from his days as a quarterback at Michigan is one several veterans that will try to impress the Bears' brass at rookie minicamp this weekend. Robinson was used as an "offensive weapon" during his four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2013-2016) and accumulated 1,058 rushing yards, 310 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.

Tyler Gaffney (RB): The former Stanford star will be at rookie minicamp for the Bears after he was released by the New England Patriots in March. Gaffney, originally a sixth-round selection by the Patriots in 2014, spent the majority of the last three seasons on injured reserve. During his season year at Stanford, Gaffney started 14 games and had 1,709 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

Titus Davis (WR): Davis, a standout wide receiver at Wheaton South High School, is the older brother of Tennessee Titans' 2017 first-round selection Corey Davis. Titus Davis played at Central Michigan from 2011-2014 and registered 204 receptions for 3,700 yards and 37 touchdowns. 

D.J. Johnson (TE), Kansas State: Johnson joins House as one of two college basketball players the Bears will have in rookie minicamp. Johnson averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game with the Wildcats in 2016-17 and helped the team to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson was an All-Conference defensive end and tight end at Parkway North High School in St. Louis.

Mark Spelman (OL), Illinois State: Spelman was one of the key members of the Redbirds offensive line last season and garnered third-team All-American honors.

D'Nerius Antoine (S), Southern Mississippi: A two-year starter for the Golden Eagles, Antoine had 189 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions and 10 passes defended. Antoine also has experience as a returner.

DeSean Smith (TE), LSU: Smith wasn't often utlized in the Tigers passing game, ending his collegiate career with 19 receptions for 346 yards and one touchdown.

Lance Lenoir (WR), Western Illinois: Lenoir, a high school teammate of 2016 Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Laquon Treadwell at Crete Monee, finished his Leathernecks career as the school's all-time leader in receptions (273), yards (3,796) and touchdowns (28).

Report: Bears schedule visit with former Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz

Report: Bears schedule visit with former Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz

After releasing one veteran wide receiver on Thursday, the Bears will reportedly meet with another next week.

According to NFL Network's Kimberly Jones, former New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is scheduled to meet with the Bears.

After missing the entire 2015 season with a calf injury, Cruz bounced back to play in 15 games with the Giants in 2016. He had 39 receptions for 586 yards and a touchdown.

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Cruz, 30, has appeared in 67 career NFL games and has accumulated 303 receptions for 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Cruz helped the Giants capture the Lombardi Trophy in a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. During the 2011 playoffs, Cruz had 21 receptions for 269 yards and a touchdown.

If the Bears sign Cruz, he'll join an already crowded wide receiver group which includes Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman and Rueben Randle