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.

Experts taking Cowboys over Bears in critical Week 14 showdown

Experts taking Cowboys over Bears in critical Week 14 showdown

Thursday night's showdown between the Dallas Cowboys (6-6) and Bears (6-6) will have a playoff-like feel to it, as both teams are jockeying for a postseason berth. The Cowboys need to keep winning in order to maintain their lead over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East, while the Bears have to win-out (and get some help) to stay alive over the final four weeks.

If the experts are right about their predictions this week, GM Ryan Pace and the rest of the Bears organization will turn their attention to the 2020 offseason on Friday morning.

According to NFL Pick Watch, 68 percent of experts polled are taking the Cowboys to win the game. It's isn't all that shocking considering quarterback Dak Prescott is in the MVP conversation and running back Ezekiel Elliott is a perennial threat to win the NFL rushing title.

The Bears are a three-point home underdog, too. Whether it's football media picking against them or the oddsmakers in Vegas assuming they'll lose by at least six points (remember, the home team usually gets a three-point edge), Chicago is the quintessential underdog Thursday night.

And isn't that exactly where this Bears team should be? Let's face it, they put themselves in this position. Losses to the Eagles, Chargers and Raiders earlier in the season are just as embarrassing now as they were then, and had the BEars managed to win even one of those matchups against likely non-playoff teams, the road to the postseason wouldn't be nearly as daunting.

Instead, the Bears must win-out, and it starts Thursday night in a game most analysts think they'll lose.

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(Too) Bold Predictions: A big night for Eddy Piñeiro, one way or the other

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USA TODAY

(Too) Bold Predictions: A big night for Eddy Piñeiro, one way or the other

(Too) Bold Predictions aims to take nuanced, well-researched information and use it to make wildly improbable predictions. Analysis! 

Rob Schaefer: 
1. For the second week in a row, Anthony Miller will lead Bears skill position players in yards:
Miller is coming off the best game of his season on Thanksgiving against Detroit — nine catches, 140 yards and a couple crucial late-game snags — a performance both refreshing and a culmination of recent strong play. In each of the Bears’ last three games, Miller has garnered nine or more targets (and six or more receptions), averaging 90.3 yards per contest. 

Dallas’ defense is solid from the front end to the back — they’ll put pressure on Mitch Trubisky all night, and they allow the eighth-least passing yards per game in the league. But Cole Beasley absolutely picked on Cowboys slot corner Jourdan Lewis last week en route to a six catch, 110-yard performance, his best game of the season. Beasley showed that, if given enough time to let plays develop, holes have a propensity to open in the middle of this Cowboys defense. Look out for Miller to take advantage of that and continue to build on the longest consistent stretch of his career so far.

2. Each kicker will miss an extra point
Is this even bold enough for this post? Somehow, I’m not 100 percent sure. Entering the night, Eddy Pineiro (75%) and Brett Maher (67.9%) rank 24th and 32nd in the NFL in field goal percentage, respectively, and Pineiro has missed to XPs this season already. 

There aren’t set to be especially strong winds howling at Soldier Field, but in a (likely) grind-it-out game with a smattering of high-leverage situations throughout, it wouldn’t be surprising to see two of the league’s more inconsistent kickers yank a gimme at least once. For what it’s worth, Maher is 33-for-33 on extra points so far this season, but he did miss two kicks (one blocked) last week in his home dome.

Cam Ellis

1. David Montgomery has 150 all-purpose yards 
The Cowboys' pass rush is no joke, but they've been susceptible against the run over the second half of the season. Dallas will certainly have plans for Allen Robinson, and Anthony Miller's last month probably has earned him some more attention on Thursday night. Montgomery hasn't had a huge impact in the pass game so far, and his best game as a receiver was when he had three catches for 36 yards in a loss to the Eagles (although an argument could be made for Thanksgiving, too). Leighton Vander Esch isn't going to play, which is objectively an advantage for Montgomery. The rookie running back has been impressive at points throughout the season, but has yet to have a breakout-type game on a national stage. That changes Thursday night. 

2. Eddy Piñeiro regains the trust of Chicago and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and your college friend who's a huge Bears' fan. Your dad remains skeptical. 
Piñeiro has quietly bounced back well since the debacle in Los Angeles. Over the last two games he's 3-3 in field goals and 4-5 on extra points. Did you know he's still perfect (2-2) from 50+ yards this season? I did not know that! The Bears offense is moving the ball better of late, but red zone efficiency has still been an issue. Piñeiro's going to get his chances, and an unseasonably warm night in Chicago, on national TV, is about as good a hand as a Bears' kicker looking for some redemption in December can be dealt. Eddy P has a big night, and Halas Hall finally replenishes their supply of media room Snickers bars once again.