Charles Leno

Five Bears with the most to prove in 2018

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USA Today

Five Bears with the most to prove in 2018

The Chicago Bears are entering a season with higher-than-usual expectations. Despite finishing 2017 with an embarrassing 5-11 record and another last-place finish in the NFC North, the Bears have been re-energized by a new coaching staff and an arsenal of young offensive weapons.

The fate of the Bears will mostly rest on the shoulders of Mitch Trubisky, but he's not alone on the list of players who need to have a big season for Chicago to compete for a playoff spot. 

Here are five Bears who have the most to prove if a playoff run is in the cards this season.

Leonard Floyd, OLB

The Bears will never become a truly special defense without a star pass rusher. Floyd is the most capable of being that guy. In fact, that's the reason GM Ryan Pace selected him in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Floyd has 11 1/2 sacks through two injury-plagued seasons and is beginning 2018 with questions surrounding a knee injury he suffered in last year's Week 11 game against the Lions. He has to prove he can be a double-digit sack artist in the NFL and it has to happen this season. If he fails, the defense is in serious trouble.

Charles Leno, Jr., OT

Leno was signed to a contract extension in 2017 that ensures he'll be the team's starting left tackle for the next few seasons. That said, his cap number drops to $2.7 million in 2019 giving the Bears wiggle room if he fails to keep Trubisky upright. Leno is being overlooked in terms of the players who are the most critical for a successful 2018. He's proven to be a reliable left tackle for a team without playoff aspirations, but if the Bears want to make a jump into the ranks of Super Bowl contenders, top-tier left tackle play is mandatory. Is Leno that kind of player? He's flirting with that standard, but he's not quite there yet. This season will go a long way in his evaluation.

Allen Robinson, WR

It's easy to forget Robinson's underwhelming 2016 season when highlights from his incredible 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown stat sheet in 2015 flash across the screen. He came crashing down to earth over his last healthy 16 games. That, combined with an ACL injury last September, qualifies Robinson as a player who has to prove he's worth the three-year, $42 million contract the Bears gave him. If he fails to return to that sensational 2015 form, the Bears offense will be fall way short of its preseason expectations. In fact, Robinson may have more pressure than any other player on offense to produce. 

Eddie Goldman, DL

Goldman's rookie season set a high bar for what his career in Chicago was supposed to be. When healthy, he's a force. He played 15 games last year after suiting up for only six in 2016. He has to stack back-to-back healthy seasons together and if he does, he and Akiem Hicks will quickly garner national respect as one of the most fearsome defensive line duos in the league. In fact, Goldman may have already done enough to earn a lucrative contract extension before the season kicks off. Regardless of whether he gets that new deal, he has to step up and have a breakout 2018.

Kyle Long, OG

There's no doubt who the leader of the Bears' offensive line is. Long has been an alpha since his rookie season but he's started only 17 games over the last two years. He needs to stay healthy and take charge up front. Long's offseason calendar has been filled with medical procedures to get him back to good form, and the timing couldn't be better. The offense finally appears ready to challenge defenses on every possession and its ceiling is much higher with Long on the field. If his body fails him again, questions about his long-term future with the Bears will slowly begin.

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Mitch Trubisky has been set up for a huge season in 2018 with all the firepower the Chicago Bears added on offense. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton will give the second-year quarterback a variety of explosive targets to generate points in bunches.

None of the headline-grabbing moves will matter, however, if the offensive line doesn't do its job. 

According to Numberfire.com, the Bears' starting five could be the offense's Achilles heel. They were ranked 21st in the NFL and described as poor in pass protection.

Last year, the Bears ranked 26th in Sack NEP per drop back and 23rd in sack rate. These issues were especially apparent after Trubisky took over. In the games that [Kyle] Long played, their sack rate was 8.2%. It was actually 7.2% in the games that he missed. They struggled even when Long was healthy.

The Bears added Iowa's James Daniels in the second round of April's draft and he's expected to start at guard alongside Long. Cody Whitehair will resume his role as the starting center, with Charles Leno, Jr. and Bobby Massie at offensive tackle.

If Long comes back healthy and Daniels lives up to his draft cost, they should be a good run-blocking team from the jump. But Long has played just 18 games the past two years and is entering his age-30 season, so that's far from a lock. On top of that, the pass blocking was suspect last year and remains a mystery entering 2018.

The biggest addition to the offensive line is Harry Hiestand, the accomplished position coach who returns to Chicago after once serving in the same role under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. He most recently coached at Notre Dame and helped develop multiple first-round picks. He's going to have a huge impact.

The good news for the Bears is they weren't the lowest-ranked offensive line in the NFC North. The Vikings came in at No. 25. The Packers checked-in at No. 13, while the Lions were 16th.

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. deserves a lot of credit. After starting his career as a seventh-round pick and something of a longshot to ever earn a starting job, he's become an irreplaceable fixture at the most important position along the offensive line.

The four-year, $38 million contract extension he signed last offseason is evidence of that.

Despite his value to the Bears, Leno is still somewhat underrated across league circles. That may be about to change.

Leno was recently named Chicago's best-kept secret.

Leno has consistently improved as a pass protector since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2014 and is now one of the team's top 10 players. If he hit the open market, Leno might be a $60 million player with the way the offensive line market is exploding. Over the next four years, the Bears should save about $20 million on the market price for their starting-caliber left tackle.

Leno has enjoyed steady improvement since his rookie season. His grades from Pro Football Focus reflect that: 53.6 (2014), 56.3 (2015), 71.2 (2016) and 80.4 (2017). 

The Bears' offensive line is poised for a big season in 2018. Leno and Bobby Massie are back as starters at tackle. Rookie second-round pick James Daniels will pair with Kyle Long at guard and third-year pro, Cody Whitehair, will get back to focusing on being the team's starting center.

If Leno's trend of improved play continues, he's a great candidate to go from best-kept secret to league star in 2018.