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.

Bears release veteran wide receiver Eddie Royal, waive three others

Bears release veteran wide receiver Eddie Royal, waive three others

The Bears offseason, already among the NFL’s busiest, spun again on Thursday with roster trims that included wide receiver Eddie Royal and defensive lineman Will Sutton, two players that finished 2016 on injured reserve but had figured prominently into personnel and rotation packages over the past two seasons.

Also waived were offensive lineman Cornelius Edison and fullback Paul Lasike.

Royal was a high-profile signing in the first offseason under GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox, agreeing to a three-year deal with $10 million guaranteed with the plan for him to be a slot receiver complementing Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. But with a succession of injuries, Royal played in just nine games in each of the past two seasons, finishing with 33 catches last season and 37 in 2015, and a total of just 3 TD receptions, plus a punt returned for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles last season.

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His contract contained no more guaranteed money for this season. The Bears’ signings of Rueben Randle, Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, the anticipated return of White from a broken leg, and the emergence of Cameron Meredith created a crowd on the depth chart ahead of Royal, who turns 31 this month.

Sutton was a third-round pick in 2014 under then-GM Phil Emery, projected as a 4-3 interior pass rusher out of Arizona State. He earned a spot in the 3-4 schemes under coordinator Vic Fangio and line coach Jay Rodgers, and started six games last season as an undersized nose tackle before going down for the year with an ankle injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The offseason additions of Jaye Howard from the Kansas City Chiefs and John Jenkins from the Seattle Seahawks added needed size to the defensive line, which also has Jonathan Bullard, Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks and Mitch Unrein in the mix for front-line playing time.

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Specifics such as whom the Bears will draft at No. 3, or 36, or somewhere in between weren't going to be gleaned from this week's conversations with Bears Chairman George McCaskey, GM Ryan Pace or head coach John Fox. But more interesting, and important, too, are some the the more strategic takeaways from visits with the hierarchy most involved with Bears football fortunes.
 
More significant than anything regarding a player or position is the stability of the core, meaning Pace's and Fox's position under McCaskey. Because that ultimately affects draft choices, signings and myriad elements extending beyond the 2017 season. And some of all that involves understanding McCaskey's vision and history.
 
Realize: Pace was McCaskey's second GM hire in barely three NFL years. The first one of Phil Emery was an abject failure, as was the accompanying coaching hire. The absolute last thing McCaskey wants to be forced by circumstances into doing is replacing another general manager. Brother Michael lost his berth as president due to making the NFL's charter franchise into a laughingstock because of a botched coaching hire; Brother George has no wish to continue the kind of high-level turnover that both reflect, cause and perpetuate dysfunction, and losing.
 
Against that backdrop, one trail of breadcrumbs leads to a strong sense that Pace is secure in his job, barring something going epically wrong. McCaskey was clear that he approved of and likes the direction the Bears are moving under Pace, to the point of having Pace in a video directed to the fanbase. If Pace were on some sort of hot seat, McCaskey and the organization do not make him a short-term face of the franchise while they hope for a player to emerge as that "face."
 
McCaskey could not put a whole lot more pressure on Pace than the latter gets as part of his job and wanting to stay in Chicago for more than football reasons.
 
"Keep building through the draft," McCaskey said during the recently concluded owners meetings. "I told Ryan he should get ripped every time around this year, this time of year ever year for not being more active in free agency. And that's because we're developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys."

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The breadcrumbs from there lead to Fox's situation. Start with the thought that coaches operate for the present and GMs for the future. Not exactly true; GMs balance present and future.
 
But every indication, verbal and otherwise, has been that Fox was very much on board with the major makeover at one spot in particular — quarterback — and a coach with down to possibly a final season pounds the table for win-now material, particularly at that position. And when the Bears didn't re-sign Brian Hoyer this offseason, which may not have appeared to be benchmark non-move but was, at least one Bears coach was apoplectic at not staying a course with a quarterback who delivered 300 passing yards and zero turnovers in his brief Bears "career."
 
Fox, however, was clearly comfortable with giving the quarterback wheel a spin with Mike Glennon, and ultimately so is his staff. Because it is part of program plan.
 
Consider this scenario: The Bears rebound to a respectable seven or eight wins; not spectacular but the NFC North is the only division in either conference to send two teams to the postseason , meaning that Fox's Bears likely put up a couple wins over good teams, which can be construed as the "progress" that McCaskey referenced this week.
 
Meanwhile, Pace has a third draft with impact players, the Kevin Whites, Eddie Goldmans and others come back from injuries, the Bears go into the 2018 offseason and land Kirk Cousins or have Glennon be what they'd hoped, and the Bears are what McCaskey envisions: a challenger with an arrow pointing up.
 
All theoretical or hypothetical, but Pace has a plan that McCaskey knows and endorses, and best guess is that he gives his GM, and coach, time to have it play out.
 
"We have confidence in Ryan and John," McCaskey said, imposing only "progress" and "results" as his conditions. "We want to build through the draft. Ryan said that in his interview when he said he was interested in coming to the Bears. And we like how he has stuck to that plan."
 
Maybe that was the most significant tell; McCaskey has seen progress apart from the record: "Yeah," he confirmed. "Yes sir."