All the high-flying receivers and the playmaking tight end that GM Ryan Pace added to the Chicago Bears this offseason will be rendered powerless if Mitch Trubisky doesn't have time to throw, making left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. one of the most important players on the roster this season.
The good news is Leno has already proven he's a solid starting tackle. He was the 15th-best offensive tackle in the NFL last season on Pro Football Focus' grading scale, earning an 80.4 (the highest grade of his career). Dig a little deeper into PFF's stats, however, and Leno ranked 20th in pass protection, suggesting he's in the bottom half of NFL starters in the aspect of his game the Bears need him to be reliable at. As a run blocker, Leno ranked 11th.
Still, Leno has steadily improved in each year of his career. The analytics show that. Here are his grades since his rookie season from PFF: 53.5 (2014); 56.3 (2015); 71.2 (2016); 80.4 (2017). His improvement should continue in 2018, especially with new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand fine-tuning his game.
Leno has enjoyed an unexpected rise from seventh-round pick to a player who signed a four-year, $38 million extension at the start of last season. If his development continues, the Bears have a salary-cap bargain with Leno, whose average annual salary ranks 14th among left tackles at the start of 2018.
Chicago invested big money in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton as well as draft capital in Anthony Miller, who they selected in the second round this year by trading away a second-round pick next year to move up and grab him. The only way they'll get a return on that investment is if Leno establishes, early in the season, that Trubisky can trust him. That trust is critically important not only for an effective offense this year but also for Trubisky's overall development. If he starts seeing ghosts in the pocket because of constant pressure from his blindside, Chicago's long-term plan can easily get derailed.
Leno will benefit from Trubisky's mobility and coach Matt Nagy's creativity. He doesn't have to be a perfect left tackle. But there will be a devastating ripple effect on the rest of the offense if he struggles, making him one of the Bears' most critical players in 2018.
The Chicago Bears have been haunted by elite-level quarterbacks in the NFC North for many years. Whether it was Brett Favre, Dante Culpepper or now Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, it's been decades since the Bears could say they had the best passer in the division.
This season is no exception, especially with Kirk Cousins joining the Vikings. Rodgers, Stafford and Cousins will give defensive coordinator Vic Fangio headaches in at least six games this season, but the Bears have a talented passer of their own who can present a challenge to opposing defenses, too.
When factoring Trubisky to the rest of the established Pro Bowlers in the North, there's no division with a more talented group of quarterbacks, according to NFL.com.
Rodgers is the most talented quarterback in NFL history. I love Green Bay bringing in Jimmy Graham to help in the red zone. Stafford has been fantastic the last few seasons, a true maestro in the clutch. And Detroit improved the offensive line and run game this offseason -- that will provide the 30-year-old quarterback with some needed protection and balance. I think Trubisky will be this year's Jared Goff, taking a major leap forward in Year 2 with a new head coach and more talent around him. Lastly, Cousins swings the pendulum in favor of this division. He's the answer to the franchise-quarterback question for the Vikings.
The Bears have so much riding on Trubisky this season and beyond. He has to prove capable of squaring off against guys like Rodgers and Stafford, quarterbacks he'll do battle with for the next several years. If he doesn't develop into the kind of player who can make timely throws on game-winning drives, Chicago will remain a step behind Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota, all clubs with starting quarterbacks who have more than a few big wins on their resumes.
All signs point toward Trubisky becoming that guy. His rookie season wasn't perfect, but it was promising. And now that Ryan Pace has surrounded him with skill players who can beat NFL coverage, he should see a big bump in his production. That bump in production will go a long way in helping the Bears win a bunch of games, especially with a defense that returns intact after finishing in the NFL's top 10 last season.
The Chicago Bears won the 2018 offseason. General manager Ryan Pace made several headline-grabbing moves that focused on rebuilding an offense that finished as one of the NFL's worst in 2017.
The biggest changes come at wide receiver where Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller were added in free agency and the NFL draft. All three will be big-time contributors in coach Matt Nagy's offense. And don't forget about former first-round pick Kevin White. He's had a great offseason and may finally be ready to become the player Pace envisioned when he selected him seventh overall in 2015.
Pace and the Bears have been praised for their efforts since free agency and now, on the eve of training camp, the new-look offense is regarded as one of the top-10 offensive arsenals in the NFL. But it's not necessarily the new names that have outlets like ESPN so excited. Instead, it's the return of one of the league's top young backfields that gives Chicago a leg up on the competition.
What pushes the Bears up these rankings is their one-two punch at halfback. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will combine to post a cap hit of about $1.4 million in 2018 and might very well project to be the best pair of running backs in football, if Ingram and Kamara slip. Cohen's versatility seems far more likely to be rewarded by Nagy than it was by departed offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.
The Bears' running game was effective in 2017 even without a downfield passing threat. Howard finished the year sixth in rushing and was facing stacked boxes week in and week out. When factoring talents like Robinson, Gabriel and Burton into a more creative passing attack this season, the upside -- all around -- for Chicago's offense is higher than it's been in many, many years.