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Saturday Spotlight: Can Charles Leno Jr. have his best year ever?

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Offensive Tackle Charles Leno Jr.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Charles Leno, Jr.

Position: Left Tackle

Number: 72

Age: 28

Time with Bears: 6 seasons

The Past:

“What would my message be? F*** you. You’re not in our position. You don’t know how hard this sh** is,” Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said about the infamous double-doink and the hatred in the hearts of a city broken thanks to a kicker who shall remain nameless.

Maybe teams need their left tackle to have this energy. After all, if your left tackle is soft, your quarterback won’t trust his blind side. That can ruin an offense as quickly as any other position, except of course the quarterback himself. Charles Leno is anything but soft.

Selected out of Boise State University in the 7th round, Leno was one of former GM Phil Emery’s final “darts” thrown at the proverbial wall which led to his firing, and one of the few to hit. The Bears started Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills at the tackle positions, and Leno was expected to be a depth piece, or even a practice squad candidate. He played sparingly through his rookie year, logging 1 official start.

After 2014, the Bears fired Emery, along with his prized head coach signing from two years prior — creative offensive guru Marc Trestman — after two consecutive seasons of uncreative offense. In hindsight, that 2014 draft was actually Emery’s best. Cornerback Kyle Fuller, Punter Pat O’Donnell, and Leno are all starting for this team 6 years later, with the latter two picks being 6th and 7th rounders, respectively. Considering Emery’s habits of drafting players after day 1 who would sit on the bench through their rookie deal and then retire, this was a very good draft.

NFL: DEC 24 Redskins at Bears Photo by Merle Laswell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After starting tackle Jermon Bushrod was bit by the injury bug that eventually led to a failed physical, Leno stepped into the left tackle spot and has held it since. In 2016, Leno started all 16 games and played every single snap on offense, per Pro Football Reference. Emery’s replacement, Ryan Pace, must have sensed that a durable left tackle who hasn’t proven to be a liability would be hot on the market and locked Leno down through the 2021 season with a hefty contract extension in 2017.

Leno had been rather clean with penalties through his career, but 2017 was where the issues began. Per The Football Database, Leno committed 13 penalties in 2017, tied for second most in the entire NFL. 6 were for false starts, which could be attributed to miscommunication with rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. However, the holding calls can’t be as easily written off. He cleaned those penalties up in 2018, starting all 16 games for the third consecutive season and making the Pro Bowl after the Bears went 12-4 and won the NFC North. After beating the Packers to win the division, Leno proposed to his girlfriend at midfield of Soldier Field in front of the Bears faithful, a heartwarming moment to close a thrilling day of football.

NFL: AUG 30 Preseason - Bills at Bears Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After restructuring Leno’s contract to free up cap room, The Bears were able to extend Cody Whitehair to provide stability around left guard James Daniels. Leno had a rough go in 2019, though. His bad habit of grabbing jerseys returned, and he again found himself near the top of the list of most penalized NFL players. Per The Football Database, his 6 holding calls were tied for the 5th most in the NFL. Leno and then-offensive line coach Harry Heistand questioned the validity of some of the holding calls, but the fact remains that the yards he cost the offense in 2019 were painful. After getting better almost every year in the league up until then, Leno took a huge step back.

The Present:

That large extension Leno signed before the 2017 season has since been surpassed multiple times, and Leno is actually on the cheaper side with an annual salary of $9.25 million, the 25th highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL per spotrac. Sometimes the best thing a left tackle can be is forgettable, as most of their logged statistics are sacked allowed and penalties. Thus far through two games, he has not allowed a sack nor committed a penalty, and the Bears need him to continue to stay disciplined. The Bears brought in offensive line coach Juan Castillo, and the difference between 2019 and 2020 offensive line play has been night-and-day. That play needs to continue to be dominant across the entire offensive line.

The Bears returned 4 of 5 starters on the offensive line, with the only departure being Kyle Long retiring after injuries plagued his last couple seasons with the Bears. Leno, along with his draftmates O’Donnell and Fuller, has the second-most experience on the team behind only Sherrick McManis. With that seniority, the Bears need Leno to be a vocal leader on the field and in the locker room. If he can help mentor James Daniels into a star player, this Bears offensive line can be special again.

The future:

Leno will be a free agent after the 2021 season, but it’s no stretch to imagine Pace will look to lock him up on a short team-friendly deal next offseason. He turns 29 next month, young enough to sign to at least one more deal. With 1 Pro Bowl in his career, Leno has bargaining power in the open market, but the Bears would be foolish not to make a legitimate effort to keep him around for a few more years as they continue to build this offense.

Leno’s week 2 assignment will be Dante Fowler, assuming the latter is healthy enough to play. Fowler, a former top-5 overall draft pick, has struggled to live up to his potential and bounced around a few teams already. Last year with the Rams, he set a career high with 11.5 sacks, and the Bears would catch a serious break if he misses the game. If he suits up, Leno won’t be able to take a snap off, as Trubisky needs to stay upright to carve up this cupcake Falcons secondary. Leno could be a name we hear called in this game, and not in a good way.

Week 3 prediction:

1 sack allowed, 0 holding calls, 0 false starts