Joe Thomas

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 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:


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.

For Bears, Super Bowl teams provide templates for multiple franchise quarterback decisions

For Bears, Super Bowl teams provide templates for multiple franchise quarterback decisions

The tagline for the Bears going into the 2017 offseason has been evident for some time, ever since Jay Cutler made it painfully clear with his injuries and performances that he is not the quarterback answer for the Bears. The natural storyline became: “The Bears have to get a quarterback.”

That’s not exactly right. In point of fact, the line confronting GM Ryan Pace and staff, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is more specific than that.

The Bears have to get THE quarterback.

The reason for the refinement to the mandate is right there in Super Bowl LI. Reasons, plural, actually.

It is beyond obvious that the quarterback situation involves several layers, with increasing levels of importance. First is the decision on Cutler, which, as Fox and coaches everywhere hold to, is a decision the player makes himself. Cutler has.

After that is the “bridge” quarterback decision, which may have been between Matt Barkley and Brian Hoyer at one time, but, again, Barkley made that decision for the Bears. Camp competition with Connor Shaw, maybe, but anything beyond that will be a surprise.

After that it becomes more interesting, which is where the object lessons provided by the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots come in.

The Bears hold the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. That was the slot the Falcons owned in 2008 when Matt Ryan was in the draft pool. Selecting Ryan was not a terribly difficult call for the Falcons, since the Boston College standout graded out as worthy of the spot. (Then again, so did Blake Bortles in 2014, Joey Harrington in 2002, Akili Smith in 1999, Heath Shuler in 1994, and… you get the idea).

The 2008 draft also included Joe Flacco, who the Baltimore Ravens took at No. 18, which actually netted the Ravens a Super Bowl and playoff success faster than Ryan has gotten the Falcons.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

But that draft also featured Chad Henne and Brian Brohm, who both went in the second round, the only quarterbacks taken before Kevin O’Connell went late in the third to the Patriots.

Point being: The No. 3 pick is where true elites live — Joe Thomas, Gerald McCoy, Larry Fitzgerald, Cortez Kennedy. The temptation may be to take best-available, always a sound, reasonable philosophy, and get a quarterback in the second round. Except that it didn’t work for the Miami Dolphins (Henne) or Green Bay Packers (Brohm).

No, it has to be THE quarterback, and if Deshaun Watson has a Russell Wilson (third round) or Flacco (mid-first) grade on him, and he is THE quarterback, should be an easy decision.

Which then turns to the final decision in the process. The “When.”

The Patriots had Drew Bledsoe in place when they drafted Tom Brady in 2000, and Bledsoe was still in place to start 2001. Then he suffered a serious chest injury in game two, whereupon the Brady legend commenced.

But there was a fork in the road, and Bill Belichick took the right fork, for the organization and history.

I was covering the Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Championship game in 2001 when Brady was injured and Bledsoe came off the bench to get the Patriots through the Steelers and into the Super Bowl.

During Super Bowl week, THE question was whether Belichick would stay with Bledsoe, who’d been given a 10-year, $103-million contract just the previous March. Belichick matter-of-factly announced that Brady was his quarterback. Period. Bledsoe, who’d gotten the Patriots to the 1996 Super Bowl, was done in New England after that, playing five more years between Buffalo and Dallas.

But the final piece was the decision to go Brady, which just as easily could’ve gone back to Bledsoe, who’d just played well in the AFC Championship game. Just as it was this season with the Dallas Cowboys to stay with Dak Prescott over owner-favorite Tony Romo.

At some point, assuming it falls something like this, Fox and the Bears will need to make a choice between Hoyer (hopefully not involving any injury situation) and “The Kid.” That decision projects to be the pivotal last call in a decision process that the Bears can only hope turns out as well as that one did for the Patriots.

Bears rookie Jordan Howard among NFL Pro Bowlers who would welcome an openly gay teammate

Bears rookie Jordan Howard among NFL Pro Bowlers who would welcome an openly gay teammate

Jordan Howard's debut season in the NFL culminated in one of the league's highest honors with a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Before he led the NFC squad in rushing with 21 yards in the game, Howard was approached by Jeremy Brener of OutSports and the Bears running back was among 14 Pro Bowlers who were in support of openly gay teammates:

"I'm pretty sure we would be supportive. We've been bonding together and that wouldn't change anything too much."

Michael Sam was the first openly gay football player to enter the NFL Draft and eventually went to the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round in 2014. But he never saw the field or recorded an NFL stat and officially retired in 2015. There are currently no openly gay players in the NFL.

OutSports was in Orlando, Fla., to check in with NFL players on LGBT issues, including comments on the tragic nightclub shooting in the city that rocked the nation in June.

Of the 18 players interviewed by Brener, 14 accompanied Howard in outwardly accepting a gay teammate while four other players took evasive action and did not directly answer the question.

Former Bears tight end Greg Olsen was among those who answered the question:

"I think it'd be great. It's a very open and honest group of guys. The locker room is a very understanding group and I think he would be treated no differently than everybody else."

Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings safety and former Notre Dame standout, said all that matters is "if you can do your job and you can play."

Joe Thomas — the outspoken left tackle of the Cleveland Browns — had maybe the most enlightening answer about how the landscape of the NFL locker room has evolved in recent years:

"It's amazing that the opinions in the locker room have changed 180 degrees from when I first started playing football to where they are right now. I think every locker room in the NFL would accept an openly gay teammate with open arms now, whereas it was such a taboo thing to even talk about when I first got into the league. I think that speaks to the tremendous progress that LGBT issues have had in such a short period of time."