The Chicago Bears’ offensive line projects to be sturdy in the middle, even if Kyle Long is playing a new different position for the third straight season. No matter how you line them up, the trio of Long, fellow guard Josh Sitton, and center Cody Whitehair present what is undoubtedly the strength of the offensive line.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about tackle. It wasn’t too long ago when Pro Football Focus highlighted the Bears’ issues at both ends of the line, listing tackle as the team’s biggest post-draft need. One player hoping to change the narrative regarding the team’s performance at the position is Charles Leno Jr., who Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune writes has a lot to play for in 2017.
Financially speaking, you would be hard-pressed to find many players on the Bears with more future earnings hanging in the balance than Leno Jr.
Sure, players such as Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz, and Prince Amukamara – who are playing on one-year prove-it deals – could make a case. However, Wright and Amukamara have already been given multi-million dollar paydays as former first-round picks. And back in 2013, Cruz received a five-year contract extension that featured more than $15 million in guarantees. So unlike the veteran free agents the Bears signed in the offseason, Leno Jr. is playing the last year of his rookie deal with eyes on his first big paycheck.
Leno Jr. is one of the few remaining Phil Emery draft picks on the team, and a significant raise could be on the horizon for the former seventh-round pick. Biggs writes the Bears “would like nothing better than to be able to extend Leno” in a move that would show a sign of faith, while also locking down a proven starter before the player reaches free agency. Of course, it’s unknown whether Leno Jr. and his agent will get to the negotiating table and get talks started before the season. However, what is known is that starting caliber tackles get paid big money in free agency.
Just take a look at some of the contracts signed during this offseason.
For example, Riley Reiff received more than $26 million in guarantees when he signed a five-year deal worth $58.75 million with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. On the other side of the line, the Vikings handed out another five-year deal to land Mike Remmers ($10.5 million in guarantees). Matt Kalil, a former Vikings left tackle, moved on to the Carolina Panthers, who lured him away in free agency with a five-year contract worth up to $55.5 million, with $24 million in guaranteed money.
One thing each of these three players have in common is that none earned a higher grade from Pro Football Focus than Leno Jr. (70.8) did in 2016. Reiff’s 67.5 grade placed him in the “below average” category, as did Remmers’ 66.1. Meanwhile, Kalil hasn’t produced an above average grade since 2013. If Leno Jr. can put together another “average” season, he’ll put himself in a good place leading into free agency.
Leno Jr. has also been one of the rare durable Bears, starting 29 games in the last two seasons – he started all 16 last season and played in each of the team’s offensive snaps. Of course, this isn’t to say he doesn’t come with some concerns. While Leno Jr. was PFF’s 35th rated pass blocker (77.1 grade) last season, his 48.6 grade as a run blocker leaves much to be desired – especially for a team that should get off the bus running with Pro Bowl stud Jordan Howard in the backfield.
Further, the average grade he earned in 2016 was a career best after two years of “poor” grades, including in 2015 when he made 13 starts at left tackle. So, yes, he still needs to make positive strides as a run blocker and clean up some of his technique in pass protection. But if the Bears are going to build this offense the right way, they will need to do so by investing in a left tackle who can protect the blindside of Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky, or whoever is under center in Chicago. And Leno Jr. may be that guy.