BOURBONNAIS — Charles Leno leaned on veteran Matt Slauson on and off the field as a first-year starter at left tackle last season, but now what? Slauson is gone and rookie Cody Whitehair is in his place at left guard. Can Leno thrive without a safety net?
“You can call it a safety net, but I look at it as a guy like Slauson, he helped me to help the team,” Leno said. “I’m going to help whoever is next to me to help the team. Don’t get me wrong — Slauson helped me off the field. He was an absolutely A-1 guy on and off the field. [Now] it’s a job I have to do. I have to play left tackle. I can’t play left guard. But I can help the left guard to help us work together.”
There’s no doubt that the 6-3, 305-pound Leno — a seventh-round draft pick from Boise State in 2014 — is entering his third NFL season and first as the expected Week 1 starter with a ton of confidence. Leno started 13 games last season, winning the job after replacing veteran Jermon Bushrod, who was cut in the offseason. And the notion that he’s still kind of an X-factor at left tackle doesn’t really register.
“To be honest with you, outside noise doesn’t bother me,” Leno said. “I know John Fox. I know [general manager] Ryan Pace. I know Jay [Cutler]. I know coach Mags [offensive line coach Dave Magazu] and the guys on my team, they believe in me and that’s all I need.”
We’ll see about that. After letting running back Matt Forte in free agency, cutting left guard Matt Slauson and trading tight end Martellus Bennett, the Bears are longer on belief and faith and shorter on proven commodities on offense this season. Quarterback Jay Cutler, guard Kyle Long and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery have been to the Pro Bowl. Eddie Royal is a quality wide receiver when healthy. But the Bears are taking a huge leap of faith on several question marks — many of them relatively unproven — that will test the intuition and evaluation abilities of Pace and his personnel department and the coach-‘em-up skills of Fox and his staff.
Will center Hroniss Grasu take the next step after an uneven rookie season? Is Whitehair ready to start at left guard? Can Jeremy Langford, as head of the running-back-by-committee, at least take the first step toward replacing Forte? Will Kevin White be as good as advertised? Is Zach Miller really a No. 1, dual-purpose tight end like Bennett was?
Some are bigger question marks than others — Miller’s pass-catching and big-play credentials are solid. Still, the Bears are counting on a lot of player-development projects to go right for this offense to be better than last season, when the Bears were 21st in the NFL in yards and 17th in offensive points scored.
Here’s a look at some of the other key players:
C Hroniss Grasu
The third-round pick from Oregon could save the Bears a lot of jumbling on the offensive line by taking command of the center job that is his to lose. With a little added weight and a better knowledge of the playbook, he is better equipped to take that next step. With Slauson gone, line calls figure to be exclusively his this season.
“He’s a very sharp kid,” Fox said. “[With regard] to develop the pro body, he’s added some bulk and strength. He is athletic ready. Combining that with some of the speed and the strength of his game is at a higher level. I like what I’ve seen from him so far.”
LG Cody Whitehair
The Bears invested a second-round draft pick (56th overall) in Whitehair, then cut the veteran Slauson — who was still playing at a high level at 29 — to make room for him in the starting lineup.
The 6-4, 310-pound Whitehair doesn’t look out of place as the first-team left guard so far, but there’s a long way to go. As Fox pointed out, Whitehair’s intelligence and versatility in college is evidence that he learns well — a key component for the athletic rookie. One factor to consider: he’ll likely be playing between a second-year center and a second-year starter at left tackle in Leno — so he won’t have a proven veteran to bail him out in the heat of battle.
RB Jeremy Langford
The 2014 fourth-round draft pick from Michigan State had his moments as a rookie — an 83-yard touchdown on a screen pass against the Rams and six rushing touchdowns — but still averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Now he’s the leader of a committee that will replace Forte, one of the most consistent and dependable Bears in recent memory.
Langford showed he had the big-play capability, but he and the rest of hte committe has a long way to go to replace Forte’s consistency and — most importantly — pass-protection proficiency.
“Mentally, I feel like I’m ready to go,” said Langford, who 537 yards on 148 carries last season and added 279 yards on 22 receptions. “I need to work on catching the ball a little bit better. I think I can play all three downs. That’s what I want to do and prove that I am capable of that. But there’s a lot of guys in the room that can do it as well.”
WR Kevin White
Essentially a rookie after missing last season with a stress fracture, White has the raw skills of great receivers and the work ethic and temperament to maximize those skills in the NFL. But how soon? Early — and premature — indicators are positive.
“He could be one of the best in the league,” teammate Marc Mariani said. “He’s not going to accept just being good. He wants to great.”
TE Zach Miller
His confidence is sky-high after a successful eight-game stint — 31 receptions, 404 yards (12.9 avg.), five touchdowns — as Bennett’s Bears career grounded to a halt in the second half in 2015. But replacing Bennett on a full-time basis will be a challenge.
“I felt I proved I could step in and make plays and I didn’t feel there were any issues with me producing as a No. 1 tight end,” Miller said. “I just have to do what I do and take advantage of [the opportunity].”