When Bears left tackle Charles Leno made the Pro Bowl after the 2018 season, it was a particularly gratifying accomplishment for a player who came into the league as a seventh-round selection in 2014.
Not only was he a late-round pick, but the 6-3, 307-pound Boise State product had little continuity at one of football’s most demanding positions. Leno was playing for his fourth offensive line coach in six seasons in Harry Hiestand and with his fourth left guard in six seasons in rookie James Daniels.
But staying at that level proved difficult. Whether it was human nature or just the difficulty in maintaining a high standard, Leno lost a little bit of his focus last season. One glaring example: Leno was penalized 13 times, nearly double his 2018 total of seven. His Pro Football Focus rating plummeted from 78.7 to 58.6.
“I just got to raise the level of my play, focus more on doing my job better,” Leno said. “One thing I looked at when I was reviewing my film was the detail and lacking fundamentals. I’m gonna do a tremendously better job at this. I already know it. I feel it in the way I’m practicing right now. And I felt it in the way I’ve been training this offseason.”
Leno was part of an offensive line that ranked 26th overall by Pro Football Focus and 29th in run-blocking by Football Outsiders. It’s a big reason why coach Matt Nagy replaced Hiestand with Juan Castillo — giving Leno his fifth offensive line coach in seven NFL seasons, following Pat Meyer (2014), Dave Magazu (2015-16), Jeremiah Washburn (2017) and Hiestand (2018-19).
So by now, Leno is used to learning new approaches and seems to be making a comfortable transition under Castillo, even though the introduction was difficult via Zoom meetings because of limitations caused by COVID-19.
“First impression of Juan? He likes -Corona [beer]; that’s the biggest first impression,” Leno said. “But on Zoom, it is what it is. -Everybody had to adjust to it. There were some things we had to work through, like just understanding, because when you’re not there, it’s hard to point out, ‘Hey, Coach, what’s this look or that look?’ Or just the feel of being around each other. Other than that, it’s been all good. So far, so good.”
Leno has been extremely dependable since replacing Jermon Bushrod as the starting left tackle in 2015. He has started 78 consecutive games, including the playoffs — playing 99.8% (5,086 of 5,094) of the Bears’ offensive snaps.
But as much as that is valued in the NFL, Castillo’s job is to get Leno’s performance at a similarly consistent level.
“I think he’s really bought into [the idea that], ‘Hey, this is really what is going to make you more consistent, Charles,’ ’’ Castillo said. ‘‘And if you’re more consistent, then you are going to be a better player.”
This is a key year for Nagy’s offense and also for Leno. It could turn out that the Bears need a first-round-caliber offensive tackle — if not two — to ignite this offense. But if other pieces fall into place, Leno and right tackle Bobby Massie can get the job done on a playoff team.
After five seasons as a starter, Leno, who will turn 29 on Oct. 9, has to convince the Bears that they don’t need to rebuild at that key offensive line spot.
“Knowing this is the NFL, this is a hyper-competitive sport, you’ve got to make sure whatever you did last year, you’ve got to do better,” Leno said. “For myself included, I’m just thinking about how I can improve to help my team.’’