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.

The 'major point' Eddie Goldman and the Bears are making on defense this year

The 'major point' Eddie Goldman and the Bears are making on defense this year

The Bears’ last four first round draft picks combined to play a total of 24 games last season, and first-round pick Leonard Floyd had half that number alone.

The top three selections in Ryan Pace’s first draft class in 2015 have played in just 33 of a possible 48 games, Eddie Goldman leads the way with 21 of those.

As far as 2017 is concerned, Pace’s offseason moves focused more on roster depth than big splashes that could be written in ink on the depth chart. Based on what his team has experienced injury-wise in his two years at the helm (as those supposed building blocks have mostly been blocking the door to the trainer’s room), it shows the general manager is still counting on them to finally put a full, or at least most of a full, season together.  

This week’s mandatory minicamp Tuesday through Thursday at Halas Hall is the final barrier some of these kids must get through before reporting to training camp six weeks from now. While we wait to see how many of those projected core players take part this week, especially all three days, Goldman is also tired of waiting for health, and beyond that, growth. 

He says he’s fully recovered from the high ankle sprain that limited him to just six games in his sophomore campaign, spending some of the early portion of the offseason continuing rehab at a facility in San Diego. But he still managed 2.5 sacks in that limited time a year ago, and has seven for his career, which is a pretty impressive number for any nose tackle who excels at occupying opposing linemen to clog running lanes. And he’s well aware of how it takes a defensive village to improve on an embarrassing total of just 28 takeaways the last two seasons, including an NFL record 11 last year.

“We’re putting emphasis on the takeaways,” Goldman said after last Tuesday’s OTA in which that side of the ball gets vocal when they forced one in seven-on-seven drills. “When we get them, we’re rallying to the ball helping the way to get to the end zone. It’s one of the major points that Vic (Fangio) is making in the classroom.”

It would be unwise to think that defensive coordinator Fangio’s unit will suddenly morph into Lovie Smith-style production. But Goldman says the problem’s being addressed with regularity, and just like all Bears fans, he’s getting impatient for the never-ending injury bug to run its course. That’s especially true up front as a revamped secondary learns to work together. That also means having all the pass rush components in place as Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston (and eventually, Danny Trevathan) work their way back from various injuries and surgeries.

“The front seven on any team is always the core," he said. "I feel like we’re meshing, we’re coming together, playing good, and there’s an urgency.”

And as Young recently shared, the defense (which still flirted with top 10 status much of last season before a miserable final three games) wants to take the reins, and take over the team’s identity, as several new offensive components learn to mesh.

“If we do our job," he said, "the offense can do its job more effectively.”

A full season from a healthy Goldman is, quite literally, front and center toward doing that.

Mitch Trubisky pick means Bears staff might stick for 2018

Mitch Trubisky pick means Bears staff might stick for 2018

I brought this up during this past week's Bears Talk Podcast, a couple of weeks after mentioning the possibility on Laurence Holmes' show on "670 The Score."

Ryan Pace going all in on Mitch Trubisky could mean buying more time for John Fox and his staff (specifically Dowell Loggains) than the more common belief the head coach and his offensive coordinator are on their Chicago lifeline this fall.

I see the complete opposite.

If this team has any semblance of luck with injuries as opposed to Fox's first two seasons (though this week's injuries to Mark Sanchez and Cameron Meredith felt a bit ominous), it's hard to see a 3-13 repeat. No doubt, Fox will have to be at his best in keeping everyone together after what's expected to be a difficult first month.

While the final two games of last season hinted otherwise, that's been one of Fox's strengths through a rebuild that's taken longer than expected now in Year 3, in part due to all the injuries. And if he can somehow find a way to guide his squad to (yes, improbably), split those first four games, imagine the psychological boost and belief that would provide.

But back to Trubisky and the staff, specifically.

Unless the General Manager senses a complete failure by Loggains and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone in bringing the No. 2 overall pick along at a satisfactory "pace" as a rookie, would they really want to hit the reset button on his development all over again?

His plate right now is full as it is, learning a pro style offense (which Carson Wentz did not have to do a year ago), identify defensive disguises at the line of scrimmage, drop back from center 40 to 45 percent of the time, master a playbook, and acclimate himself to his offensive weapons. Once he finally gets comfortable with that (whether he sees game action this season or not), would Pace really want to start all over again, unless he just, flat out, dislikes the job Loggains is doing?

You say what if Loggains stays, and Fox goes? Doesn't work that way. A new head coach won't want to be told who his offensive coordinator is, unless that change at the top of the staff comes from within (Vic Fangio?). 

So as we look forward, as much as Bears fans want answers, or instant playoff gratification, the season must play out. I can't wait to see how it does (but check back with me at the bye week).

Public patience, understandably, is thin. And another sub-.500 season would have fans and some media demanding change again. Pace would almost certainly get an opportunity to hire a second head coach, and it's also the last thing George McCaskey wants next January, yet again.

So when it comes to bringing their quarterback of the future along, a coaching change could make the future a bit longer to arrive.