Charles Leno’s goal: ‘To be the Bears’ left tackle for a long time’
BOURBONNAIS — Exactly a year ago Thursday, former Bears quarterback Jay Cutler played prophet with his praise of left tackle Charles Leno Jr.
“He’s quiet; he’s underrated,” Cutler said. “But you put it on the film, and every single play, he’s doing his job. So I think everyone’s starting to take notice of what kind of player he is, and he’s going to continue to get better. He’s still a young guy.”
As it turned out, Leno was the only offensive player to be on the field for “every single play” last season — 1,010 out of 1,010 — for the injury-plagued Bears.
In doing so, Leno cemented himself as a full-time starter, one the Bears see as having more room to improve. He’s only 25.
The question now is whether Leno signs a contract extension and becomes the Bears’ long-term starter. A seventh-round pick out of Boise State in 2014, Leno is in a contract year.
“I’ll have my agent and the front office take care of that other stuff,” Leno said. “Right now, I’ll just take care of football.”
Leno, though, knows what he wants to be and for which team.
“I’m trying to be the Bears’ left tackle for a long time,” Leno said. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to be the best tackle in the game — period — so I can help this team win championships.”
When it comes to the Bears’ long-standing problem positions, left tackle typically takes a backseat to quarterback and safety in terms of attention.
But Leno is set to become the Bears’ first three-year starter at left tackle since John Tait, a major free-agent signing in 2004. Tait’s run at left tackle came from 2005 to 2007, but it also was sandwiched by seasons on the right side.
Between Leno and Tait, the Bears started Jermon Bushrod, J’Marcus Webb, Frank Omiyale, a past-his-prime Orlando Pace and John St. Clair. Andy Heck was the Bears’ last long-term answer on the left side, starting five seasons from 1994 to 1998.
The Bears aren’t opposed to extending players during the season or training camp. Outside linebacker Willie Young signed a new contract last year at this time. But Leno is in line for a significant pay raise.
According to Leno’s rookie contract, he’ll earn $1.8 million this season. The average annual salary of the top 15 left tackles is more than $11.5 million.
Is Leno a top-15 tackle?
Pro Football Focus, an analytical company used by many NFL teams, has been critical of Leno’s play, but according to its analysis, he allowed five sacks last season.
General manager Ryan Pace called Leno one of the “brightest spots” on the roster in 2015 after he replaced an injured Bushrod in Week 3 and protected Cutler’s blind side for the remainder of the season.
At the end of last season, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said Leno had a “solid year” and was “ascending in the right way.”
But the strongest indications of the Bears’ faith in Leno came this offseason, when resources in free agency were used elsewhere. He’s the unquestioned starter in an all-important position.
It’s in the best interests of the Bears and Leno to reach a new deal sooner rather than later.
Leno wouldn’t have to worry about injuries. And the Bears wouldn’t have to worry about competition on the open market, where the price undoubtedly would rise for a young left tackle with Leno’s starting experience.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way, obviously, in my development,” Leno said. “But I still feel like I haven’t even met my ceiling yet. I still have a long way to go to where I fully max out my potential.”
Leno’s mindset won’t change because of his contract situation, either. He isn’t that type of player. But he has earned his payday after nearly going undrafted.
“It’s still, ‘Get it,’ ” Leno said of his mindset. “I still have to work towards the goal.”
That goal is to be a fixture for the Bears.
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