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.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: How much will Trubisky improve in his 2nd preseason game?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: How much will Trubisky improve in his 2nd preseason game?

Mark Carman, Scott Merkin and Chris Bleck join Kap on the panel. Jon Lester looks to get back on track against the Pirates? Should he still be the Cubs Game 1 starter in the playoffs?  Len Kasper joins Kap to discuss.

 

How much will Mitch Trubisky improve in his 2nd preseason game? And will Carlos Rodon end up being the White Sox’ best starter?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

How aggressive will the Bears' offense be? 'That's our attitude'

How aggressive will the Bears' offense be? 'That's our attitude'

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Matt Nagy provided a defining quote for his offense when a reporter observed that Mitch Trubisky was continuing to take shots downfield instead of checking down during practice. 

“That's never going to stop,” Nagy said. “Not in this offense.”

For a team that had neither the personnel nor scheme to be successful on offense over the last few years, that one quote felt like a breath of fresh air. Not in this offense would the Bears be conservative, plodding and predictable. What’s never going to stop is the aggressive mentality Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich have worked to instill in this group during the installation phase of preseason practices. 

“That’s our attitude every time we come out on the field, is to be aggressive, to go full speed and it’s to execute all our assignments,” wide receiver Anthony Miller said. 

Just because Trubisky has frequently hucked the ball downfield over the last few weeks of practice doesn’t mean this offense will go from one of the worst to one of the best in the NFL. There’s plenty of work still to be done, a large chunk of which falls on the shoulders of Trubisky. The coaching staff will begin paring things down next week, when a dress rehearsal of gameplanning begins leading up to Aug. 25’s meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs. 

But while that week of gameplanning surely will lend itself to less reflexive aggression, that overall approach isn’t going away. Not when the Bears are confident in Trubisky and the multitude of weapons surrounding their franchise quarterback. In a more narrow scope, Nagy said Trubisky's arrow is pointing up after back-to-back days of quality practice against the Broncos here in Colorado. 

"It wasn't one good day, one bad day. It was two good days," Nagy said. "That's what his expectations are. That's what he knows that we want. He's done that and we're not gonna stop him." 

For some perspective, last year Trubisky only attempted 30 passes of 20 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, 41 percent of Trubisky’s attempted passes traveled 0-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage; drilling down further, 21 percent of his attempts were 0-10 yards and over the middle, representing most frequent “zone” to which he threw the football. Not all of those were check-downs, of course, but plenty of them were. Only nine percent of Trubisky’s throws traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. 

This was, of course, partly a personnel issue — Josh Bellamy was the most-targeted receiver on deep balls (eight), while guys like Dontrelle Inman (six), Kendall Wright (four), Deonte Thompson (three), Markus Wheaton (three) and Tre McBride (three) weren’t reliable downfield targets, either. But then again, Tarik Cohen was only targeted twice on deep balls — the first one, Cohen had a step on an Atlanta Falcons linebacker, but Mike Glennon’s pass was slightly under thrown an broken up in the end zone; the other was a 70-yard completion from Trubisky against the Carolina Panthers. 

The point being: Not only did the Bears lack the personnel to create mismatches and be aggressive, but the conservative nature of the offense meant there wasn’t much opportunity within it to do so, either. 

The Bears can be aggressive now in part because of the nature of the offense, and in part too because of the personnel they now have. If an opposing team wants to double anyone — Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Cohen, etc. — that’ll open up a mismatch somewhere else on the field, which lends itself to aggressiveness. 

“The biggest thing I’ve learned about this offense (is), just, there’s a lot of answers,” Trubisky said. “We’re not always going to have the perfect play call for the perfect coverage or whatever. But there’s always somewhere to go with the ball, pass to run, run to pass, there’s a lot of kills, options — there’s a lot of things we can do.”

Said Burton, who’s put together a strong preseason to date: “That’s why (Ryan) Pace and Nagy brought all those guys here, to win the one-on-one matchups. I know we’re all looking forward to those whenever it’s our time, we gotta take advantage of it.” 

Exactly how aggressive the Bears’ offense will be will become apparent in the next week and a half. While the Bears will still hold some things back against Kansas City to keep them off tape, the overall tenor of the offense will be more readily apparent on Aug. 25 than in the team’s other preseason contests. 

And if all goes according to plan, not only will this offense be aggressive — it’ll be aesthetically pleasing to everyone watching, too. 

“We’re going to keep taking shots,” Trubisky said. “We’re going to keep being aggressive because it opens up everything else when you can hit those shots. The key is just to be consistent with them, hit them and then it really stretches the field and opens up the run game and opens up the intermediate throws as well. So we’re going to continue to be aggressive, which I love.”