Mike McGlinchey

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.

Notre Dame grades: Evaluating an offense limping into the bye week

Notre Dame grades: Evaluating an offense limping into the bye week

With the Irish in a bye week, we’re grading Notre Dame’s offense, defense, special teams and coaching staff after seven games. Yesterday was the coaching staff, today is the offense:

Quarterbacks: B

What’s gone right: What a strange season it’s been for this position. DeShone Kizer looked infallible over the first five weeks of the season, throwing for 14 touchdowns against four interceptions and racking up 1,567 yards. Notre Dame’s red zone efficiency significantly improved thanks to Kizer’s six rushing touchdowns in that span, too, helping keep this offense productive despite the departures of almost every key contributor from 2015’s group. 

While things took a turn for the worse in Notre Dame’s last two games before the bye week (more on that below), Kizer has proven over the last 13 months that he’s more than good enough to rebound from those back-to-back ineffective games. The bye week probably benefits him the most, as he can get away from a season that’s put an immense amount of pressure on him for a few days. 

What’s gone wrong: Kizer’s horrific stat line at N.C. State (9/26, 54 yards, 1 INT) can be explained by Notre Dame’s hard-headedness in forcing the redshirt sophomore to drop back and throw so frequently in Hurricane Matthew’s rain and wind. But the weather was clear, warm and dry a week later in South Bend, and Kizer completed 14 of 26 passes for 154 yards with two interceptions and was pulled from the game in the second half for Malik Zaire. 

Coach Brian Kelly’s message after the Stanford loss was that Kizer needs more help on offense, which is certainly true — Kizer was asked to do it all in the first seven games, and it only resulted in two wins. And against Stanford, Kizer looked tentative and not all together confident in his ability to prop up the rest of the offense. 

Combine the pressure on Kizer with an offensive line that hasn’t played up to expectations and that’s led to 16 sacks. The end of the Stanford game highlighted Kizer and the Irish offense’s problem: After driving Notre Dame to the Cardinal eight-yard line, Kizer was sacked, spiked the ball, and sacked again to end the game only a few yards from tying things up. 

Zaire hasn’t been effective in his limited time, completing six of 16 passes for 72 yards and rushing 11 times for 27 yards. 

Running backs: C

What’s gone right: Dexter Williams earned praise from Kelly for his tough, physical running against Duke and ripped off a 59-yard touchdown against Syracuse. Tarean Folston had a 54-yard run on his first carry since tearing his ACL in Week 1 of 2015 and had a handful of impressive runs against Stanford. Josh Adams, probably not coincidentally, had 100-yard games in both of Notre Dame’s wins. 

What’s gone wrong: It’s hard to pin all of Notre Dame’s ground game struggles on either the running backs or offensive line, but whatever the combination is, it hasn’t been effective. Notre Dame enters the bye week averaging 3.98 yards per carry, 93rd in FBS and down over a yard and a half from 2015’s average of 5.63 yards per carry (which ranked 8th). 

However it happens, Notre Dame needs to get more production from its running backs if it wants to effectively take the pressure of Kizer in these last five games. 

Wide receivers: B

What’s gone right: Equanimeous St. Brown has been a revelation, catching 31 passes for 611 yards with six touchdowns in his first seven games. He instantly became Kizer’s go-to target at Texas with his pair of touchdowns — including that highlight-reel somersault into the end zone — and had a ridiculous stat line of four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse. 

Torii Hunter Jr. has at least four receptions and at least 60 yards in every game since returning from the concussion he sustained at Texas. He caught passes for a pair of impressive third-and-long conversions against Stanford, which were good examples of why the redshirt junior captain remains an important piece in the Irish offense. 

C.J. Sanders (18 catches, 260 yards, two touchdowns) and Kevin Stepherson (10 catches, 209 yards, three touchdowns) have shown flashes as explosive players this year, too. Stepherson’s continued emergence from an impressive spring practice has been a positive, and he’s the first true freshman receiver in the Kelly era to have three touchdowns in his first seven games (per College Football Reference’s play index).  

What’s gone wrong: In 2015, Kizer’s top four targets — Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Hunter — each caught no less than 61.5 percent of their targets. This year, only Sanders has caught at least 60 percent of his targets: St. Brown is at 58.5 percent, Hunter 58.1 percent and Stepherson 52.6 percent. Granted, those numbers are certainly skewed by Hurricane Matthew, so we’ll see how they rebound over these final five games. 

But this is a young receiving corps that, as is the case with underclassmen, isn’t always as sharp as a group of juniors and seniors would be. The good news is this group has laid a relatively solid foundation on which to build next year, when St. Brown and Sanders will be upperclassmen and Stepherson will have two spring practices and a full season under this belt. 

Tight ends: D

What’s gone right: Durham Smythe’s touchdown against Michigan State helped fuel what was ultimately a too-little-too-late comeback effort.

What’s gone wrong: Losing Alize Jones prior to the season certainly dinged this group, which has seen Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar combine of 13 targets, seven catches, 87 yards and one touchdown. Combined with Notre Dame’s running game struggles, there just hasn’t been much production from this group in 2016.

Offensive line: C

What’s gone right: Mike McGlinchey announced earlier this month he’s planning on returning for a fifth year in 2017, which means Notre Dame at the least will return 87 starts on its offensive line next fall (92 if it reaches a bowl game). 

What’s gone wrong: It’s a little strange evaluating this group given that McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are objectively excellent players, both of whom could wind up being first-round picks and stalwarts on NFL offensive lines someday. But the expectations for this group were high coming into the season, and for whatever reason — having four players playing new positions or being first-time starters is probably No. 1 — they haven’t been met. Notre Dame ranks 58th in adjusted line yards, 61st in opportunity rate and 86th in adjusted sack rate, and even when you distribute some of responsibility for those numbers to the rest of the Irish offense, they’re still below what this line was supposed to be in 2016. 

 

Mike McGlinchey plans on returning to Notre Dame, not entering NFL Draft, in 2017

Mike McGlinchey plans on returning to Notre Dame, not entering NFL Draft, in 2017

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame redshirt junior left tackle Mike McGlinchey said he plans on returning for a fifth year, a decision that isn’t formal but could have a significantly positive impact on the Irish in 2017. 

McGlinchey was asked if he came to Notre Dame with the mindset that he’d spend five years in South Bend, and said he did and fully intends to follow through with that plan. 

"It's going to be a five-year process. I have 19 games left here, and that's what I fully intend to take on," McGlinchey said. "I have a lot left to learn. I'm not ready to go anywhere. I have the best in the business coaching me each and every day, and it's to my benefit to just stay here and learn from him, and there's nothing that I can do to want to change that. I have no intention of wanting to change that.

"I mean, I've played a lot of football so far, but I have a lot left to accomplish, and I know I'm not going to put myself in a position to go somewhere when I'm not fully ready to. And I'm fully confident that I will be ready at some point, but I don't think it'll be after this season."

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It’s worth noting that former Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and wide receiver Will Fuller both said during the season they planned on returning for their senior years before deciding to turn pro with a year of eligibility renaming. McGlinchey, though, volunteered his mindset, whereas Fuller last year was directly asked about it (Tuitt told the school paper he was returning in 2013 and was later non-commital about that decision). 

McGlinchey said he hasn’t paid attention to draft projections, some of which have him pegged as a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft if he were to turn pro. But even if he is projected as a first-round pick — as former Irish left tackle Ronnie Stanley became in May after passing on a fifth year — he won’t take that into consideration as to whether or not he’ll stay or go. 

Instead, McGlinchey said, it’ll be more about looking in the mirror and figuring out if he’s ready to go pro. For now, though, McGlinchey sounded sure of his mindset to stick around and learn from offensive line coach Harry Hiestand again in 2017. 

"It's not going to come down to a projection for me," McGlinchey said. "It's going to come down to a mindset and a look in the mirror of whether or not I am ready to go, and based off of what I'm feeling now, I'm pretty confident that I'll be back here for a fifth year. And it's not any major decision or ground-breaking decision. I fully intended to do that when I first got to college.

"And like I said, I have so much left to learn here, and it's not going to come down to projections or potential money that I can make. Because if I'm good enough at the point when I feel ready to do it, I'll do it. And those projections will become reality at some point when it's my time to be ready to do that."