Let’s not allow the budding quarterback competition between Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky to distract us from a bit of important off-field news that unfolded yesterday.
The Chicago Bears extended the contract of left tackle Charles Leno Jr., a deal that directly impacts Glennon (or Trubisky, or whoever is lining up under center this year and beyond). In giving Leno Jr. a four-year extension, the Bears lock up the man protecting the quarterback’s blindside for the foreseeable future. It’s an important position that keeps a well thought-of offensive line together, while stabilizing a position that has seen a parade of under-performing players cycle in and out over the last decade or so.
So with the likes of J’Marcus Webb, Jermon Bushrod, Chris Williams, and Frank Omiyale being a thing of the past, we can now look at left tackle as a position that shouldn’t be in flux for a while.
Follow the Money
As with every long-term extension, figuring out where money fits is a top priority. Leno Jr.’s four-year deal is reportedly worth $38 million, which includes $21.5 million guaranteed. To be clear, I understand why those numbers stand out – especially since we’re discussing a player who was a former seventh-round pick. However, that shouldn’t be considered when discussing this deal and its impact in the years to come.
Using the information provided by Over The Cap, the $38 million total value is the 14th highest among left tackles, with Leno Jr. nestling in between Anthony Castonzo of the Colts ($43.8 million) and Jared Veldheer of the Cardinals ($35.75 million). At an average of $9.5 million per year, Leno Jr.’s new deal also ranks 14th, this time between Nate Solder of the Patriots ($10.95 million) and Jason Peters of the Eagles ($9.1 million). The total guaranteed money isn’t outrageous either, with Leno Jr.’s $21.5 million ranking ninth among left tackles.
In fact, Leno Jr. will receive less guaranteed money than Riley Reiff and Matt Kalil, both of whom signed free agent deals with new teams this summer and earned lower grades from Pro Football Focus last season.
By getting a deal done now, the Bears avoid a nightmarish scenario in which Leno Jr. plays himself into a bigger contract and leaves the team in the dust in free agency. As referenced above, players like Reiff and Kalil both cashed in with big paydays despite not grading out as elite tackles. The Bears potentially saved some cash and gained some stability by locking in Leno Jr. through his age 29 season.
Of course, the Bears do take on some risk by locking down a left tackle who isn’t elite, but it’s not a deal that should handcuff the team long term in any way.
Value in Availability
If there is anything you can take away from Leno Jr.’s new deal, it’s confirmation there is significant value in simply showing up to work.
There have been 167 tackles to earn starts since the start of the 2015 season, but only 34 have started at least 90 percent of their games at the position in that time frame. With 29 starts over the last two seasons, Leno Jr. is one of the few who have been durable and productive enough to be a regular starter.
Leno Jr. was one of just three players who started all 16 games for the Bears in 2016, with the others being rookie center Cody Whitehair and defensive end Akiem Hicks (who could soon be looking for an extension of his own). Continuity on the offensive line has been tough to find for the Bears, who have started 15 different players at tackle since the start of the 2010 season.
Moving forward, Leno Jr. can prove to be a valuable player simply by showing up and playing respectably at the position. If showing up is 80 percent of the battle, as Woody Allen once suggested, then the other 20 percent of his responsibilities seem simple enough: Don’t commit needless penalties and don’t get the quarterback killed.
Beyond availability, Leno Jr. showed improvement and productivity last season. After earning grades of 53.5 and 56.3 from PFF in his first two seasons, Leno Jr.’s grade jumped to a 71.2 – which put him among the group of league average tackles. His 95.2 pass protection grade was surprisingly excellent, but his 49.4 run blocking grade ranked 63rd among 76 qualifying tackles.
Hey, no one said Leno Jr. was perfect.
Eyes on the Future
Rewarding a hard-working, self-made player like Leno Jr. with an extension is a nice gesture. But make no mistake, this signing was made with Trubisky in mind.
With Leno Jr. in the fold, the Bears are starting to piece together an offensive core that will hopefully grow together as a productive and exciting offensive unit. Leno Jr. doesn’t turn 26 until October, which puts him on the same path as Trubisky, Whitehair, Jordan Howard, and Adam Shaheen as budding young players the team is building its offense around. Trubisky, Leno Jr., and Shaheen are under contract through at least 2020, while Howard and Whitehair are Bears through 2019.
Further, signing Leno Jr. takes the pressure off GM Ryan Pace and his scouting staff to find, draft, and develop a first-round left tackle in the upcoming draft or overpay for one via free agency and hope he fits. This should allow the Bears’ front office to focus on skill positions in need of upgrades, as wide receiver, pass rusher, and cornerback come to mind. Of course, the Bears could still draft a tackle early and plug him in on the right side of the line where a rookie wouldn’t be forced to deal with the pressure of protecting a franchise quarterback’s blind side.
The Bears offense still has a long way to go, but putting long-term pieces at quarterback, running back, and on the offensive line represent a good starting point and core to build from. And Leno Jr. is definitely in the mix.