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.

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

With the 2017 NFL schedule officially released, a look at a handful of games that are must-watch events or that could determine playoff scenarios in January of 2018:

Thursday, Sept. 7: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

The defending champs open their title defense with a Chiefs team that went 12-4 and won the AFC West last year. Kansas City had the AFC’s second-highest point differential at +78, but that was less than half of New England’s (+191) in 2016. The last time these two teams played was in the divisional round of the 2015 playoffs, with New England winning that, 27-20. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

A week after opening the season in Chicago against the Bears, Atlanta will play its first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday Night Football against a Green Bay side it crushed, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game in January. This could be an early battle for NFC supremacy or, at the least, an entertaining, high-scoring game. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos

Can Dak Prescott do it again? The Cowboys sophomore quarterback will face a tough schedule this year, headlined by this trip to Denver to face a team that had the NFL’s fourth-best scoring defense (18.6 PPG) and best passing defense (5.8 yards/attempt) last year. 

Monday, Oct. 2: Washington Redskins at Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City’s 18 interceptions tied for the most in the NFL last year, while Kirk Cousins threw for 4,917 yards and 25 touchdowns. With Cousins likely to be on the open market after this season, he could set the tone for a rich contract with a strong performance against a top-level secondary in primetime here. 

[RELATED: NFL does Bears no favors with opening four-game stretch]

Sunday, Oct. 22: Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots

This is only the seventh regular season rematch between the previous season’s Super Bowl participants in NFL history, though they’ve been oddly common in recent years: Denver beat Carolina last year, and in 2014, Seattle won in overtime against Denver. 

Monday, Nov. 20: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks

The December Monday Night Football schedule is full of potential division-deciding matchups  (Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, New England at Miami, Atlanta at Tampa Bay) and overall, this year’s Monday night slate is strong. But this Falcons-Seahawks matchup in late November carries plenty of intrigue. These two teams met in the 2016 regular season, with Seattle making a fourth quarter comeback to win, 26-24. 

Monday, Dec. 11: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins last year made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and if they have any lofty designs on unseating the Patriots in the AFC East, this could be the game that does it. Miami lost their home game against New England last year by 21 points.

Sunday, Dec. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders

Prescott against Derek Carr on Sunday Night Football, in what could be one of the last “big” games at Oakland Coliseum, should be one of the better cross-conference games of 2017. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s offseason haul was headlined by adding Alshon Jeffery to pair with Carson Wentz, which could be a dangerous combination in the NFC East. if Dallas were to fall back to earth, circle this season-ending game as one that perhaps could decide the division. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions

Green Bay ended last season at Ford Field, too, with their 31-24 win securing an NFC North title. If the division goes down to this game again, there’s some added intrigue given the Lions pulled T.J. Lang away from Green Bay in March with $19 million guaranteed — an awfully high price for a guard. 

Raiders-to-Vegas the latest in long line of NFL relocation drama, some of which included the Bears

Raiders-to-Vegas the latest in long line of NFL relocation drama, some of which included the Bears

PHOENIX — The Bears next play a team named "Raiders" in 2019, having just played them in 2015 at Soldier Field. Whether the Bears' schedule of opponents will say Oakland Raiders or Las Vegas Raiders is still fluid, but the Raiders are leaving Oakland sometime in the next several years after the expected vote Monday at the NFL owners' meetings.

Leaving a press conference at which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Raiders owner Mark Davis and a couple other league figures formally announced the foregone conclusion of the Raiders moving from Oakland to Las Vegas, a Cleveland media counterpart fell in beside me and remarked, "Well, at least that's one story you won't have to worry about covering in Chicago."

Maybe yes, maybe no.

The NFL game presents endless spurts of the byzantine and bizarre, so my colleague — who saw his Browns bolt from their lakefront to Baltimore one dark upon-a-time — might be premature with his effort at comfort. Besides, nobody to my knowledge ever took the temperature of Decaturites when their town lost the Staleys to Chicago (at least the Bears kept a Staley as a mascot). And a deal had been worked out, later abandoned, to move the Bears to Hoffman Estates in the mid 1990s, something that had been preceded by then-chairman Michael McCaskey shopping the franchise to various suburbs, low-lighted by a flirtation with Gary, Ind., to something that concept drawings labeled "Planet Park."

Hizzone Da Mare once told George Halas that if Papa Bear took his team out of the city, the "Chicago" part of its name wasn't going with it. And son Richie blustered regarding Gary, "Let them move to Alaska."

Well, I mean, then again, hey, if Juneau or Fairbanks can come up with the requisite relocation fees.

And you can only wonder how many members of Raider Nation are feeling that way about the Raiduhs, that they can go to Alaska (or Gary) for all they care.

The vote approving the Raiders' move to Las Vegas (presumably the league toned down any anti-gambling rhetoric for the day) was believed to be 31-1, with only the Miami Dolphins saying nay. But the side issues were everywhere and somewhat more entertaining, given that the deal was a fait accompli ever since the city of Oakland failed to deliver enough of a stadium package to keep its Raiders where they'd begun under Al Davis when the AFL was formed in 1960.

It was difficult not to chuckle as Mark Davis opined that he thought his late father "would be proud" of moving the team to the self-appointed entertainment capital of the world. True that; Al moved the Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982, to a second location in that market subsequently, and then back to Oakland in 1995. Definitely a legacy to be proud of.

And one for Goodell, too, who summarized, "You know that our goal is to have 32 stable franchises for each of those teams and the league," meaning stable financially, not necessarily geographically. "We're all disappointed for Oakland and their fans," Goodell managed to say.

The Raiders do have one-year options on their lease in Oakland for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and Davis said that if their Las Vegas facility isn't completed for the Bears' 2019 visit (OK, he didn't say "Bears," that was me), an extension might be in order.

Some observers are waiting for a reaction statement from jilted Oakland mayor Libby Shaaf, who got a thanks-but-no-thanks public letter from Goodell this weekend and sent a last-minute one for the league to delay its vote on the Las Vegas move, which the league didn't do. Somehow the thought of the Raiders asking Oakland to do something for them in their time of need is something worth buying a ticket to.

In the meantime, the move proceeds as expected, adding another mystery to the NFL firmament: moving a team to a significantly smaller sports market from the one it already occupied; moving not one but two teams into the Los Angeles market that had been abandoned by the Rams, Raiders and even Chargers (one of the teams now returning there); those sort of things.

How viable the Las Vegas market is for NFL football is something that'll play out over the next number of years. For now, good seats still available ... in Oakland.