Bears

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 play 'designer' game in mauling of Bengals, now what does it mean for the big picture?

Bears play 'designer' game in mauling of Bengals, now what does it mean for the big picture?

A week after playing the kind of football game that gets coaches fired, the Bears almost inexplicably produced one that ranks as exactly the type their organization has wanted to see from players and coaches in a season on the employment brink for John Fox.

The Bears’ 33-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals was an afternoon rife with signs of progress, particularly notable because it came from a team with nothing to play for and came at the expense of a team that actually did have at least a mathematical something at stake.

Not to even remotely say that this was a game that changed the job forecast for Fox, which still has time to play out, only that if the Bears somehow manage to string together a closing four games like this… well, no point getting that hypothetical at this juncture. But one team played on Sunday like it wanted its coach gone and the other like it wants its coach back, and they weren’t as expected.

(Just for sake of argument: If the Bears now play this kind of game against the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, how will you feel about John Fox coaching Chicago for the fourth and final year of his contract? Just sayin’…)

All of this came at the expense of a Cincinnati team missing virtually the entire back end of its defense and with All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins hobbled. But this is what you are supposed to do to a shaky, shaken team, and it is what the Bears didn’t do to a San Francisco or a Green Bay. You can only beat the team in front of you that day and the Bears, for the third time against a team from the powerful AFC North division this year, did that. Emphatically.

What the organization does with this in evaluating Fox is still weeks away and not really worth the analysis exercise right now. But it was a statement game, one where the Bears played well and hard for 60 minutes, for any number of individuals, beginning with Mitch Trubisky as the rookie evinced the kind of development that the franchise has prayed for from its young quarterback ever since GM Ryan Pace deemed him worth trading up on draft day to ensure landing.

Call this a “designer” game – a 100-yard rusher (Jordan Howard with two touchdowns and 147 yards, pushing him past 1,000 yards for the season), a 100-yard receiver (Kendall Wright, 10 catches for 107 yards, and a quarterback who both managed the game and shredded the defense (Trubisky, 25 for 32, 271 yards, a touchdown pass and touchdown run, no interceptions and a rating of 112.4.

The 482 yards of offense are the second-highest output (after 522 in a 2016 loss at Indianapolis) in the Fox era.

The defense collected two takeaways (an interception and fumble grab by rookie safety Eddie Jackson) while the offense had zero turnovers. That second part has been of marginal value this season, with the Bears an undistinguished 2-2 in games when they’ve managed no giveaways. But ball security has been a prime directive for Trubisky since coaches turned the game over to him and Sunday’s effort left him with just those four interceptions in 225 attempts, a pick percentage of 1.8 and completion percentage climbing to 58 percent.

Game plan pyrotechnics

The game plan and result do make for an interesting dichotomy for critics. The Bears have to run the football to win, and yet when O-coordinator Dowell Loggains runs the football, he’s pilloried for being too conservative and shackling Trubisky.

This time Loggains was able to formulate and direct a game plan that had balance – 38 runs, 34 pass plays – and a complete spectrum of formations that included a wildcat run by Tarik Cohen, a read-option touchdown run by Trubisky, and passes to open six of the Bears 11 possessions.

The Bears piled up 256 yards in the first half after a combined total of 287 for the last two games. 

What had to be concerning is that, while Trubisky had thrown just four interceptions over the span of his first eight starts, he also had connected on just five touchdown passes (six if the Zach Miller non-catch travesty is included). And as WBBM and WSCR observer Zach Zaidman compiled, the offense had gotten into the red zone only nine – nine – times in eight games under Trubisky.

This time the Bears drove into the red zone five times and came away with points three of those times. Add in Howard’s first touchdown run for 21 yards and the overall is the sort of sustained consistent offense that wins football games.

The Bears didn’t go a possession without notching at least one first down until deep into the fourth quarter when they were up 33-7.

Six different players had plays gaining 10 yards or more and the Bears had 10 plays longer than 15 yards. Last week, the Bears had one play longer than 15 yards. Against Philadelphia, three. Against Detroit, one of the only three other times they scored 20-plus points this season, six.

“We put the past behind us and [focused on] one drive at a time,” Trubisky said. “We had a great week of practice, and I feel like that just trickled [down] throughout the week with positive energy. The guys just came together and we were able to make a lot of plays today.

“We weren’t going to dwell on the past and what we didn’t do. We can learn from our mistakes, and it allowed us to be more effective today.”

And it all means…what?

The positives speak for themselves, but mean precious little if this game, with its largest Bears winning margin since they beat Jacksonville by 38 and Tennessee by 31 in 2012, isn’t followed by another progress game, then another, and then one more at Minnesota.

The Bears have delivered false positives on multiple occasions this season, in the form of wins over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Carolina, none of which ultimately meant much of anything because of what followed. The Carolina win was followed by five straight losses that rocked the franchise just as it felt as if a turnaround might be starting.

Now, no one really knows what to expect.

“What’s been frustrating for me and the coaches is that a lot of us have had our day in the sun, but to see young guys come in, and work hard, and not reap those benefits,” Fox said. “I thought Mitch Trubisky played very well last week [vs. San Francisco]. When you don’t experience the end result that’s a ‘W,’ it’s hard to put much into that. I’ve seen him grow every week he’s been out there since all the way back to Minnesota.

“It’s just kind of nice to see some of those young guys experience the benefits of all that hard work.”

Under Center Podcast: How important was Bears' blowout win over Bengals?

12-10_howard_bears_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: How important was Bears' blowout win over Bengals?

Where has that game plan been all season!?

Laurence Holmes, Alex Brown and Jim Miller break down the Bears' 33-7 win over the Bengals on Sunday.

Mitchell Trubisky had his best game as a Bear as Jordan Howard continued to change the franchise’s record books.

Plus, Adam Shaheen and Kyle Fuller had big performances that could cement them as part of the Bears future which starts this Saturday with the division-rival Lions.

Listen to the full Under Center Podcast right here: