Selecting a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft hasn’t bought extended tenures for coaches and general managers of late, but the decision to release Charles Leno Jr. could be a hint that Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are on stable ground.
There is no way around it. The Bears would be better in 2021 with Leno on the team. He is an average left tackle, but average is good enough to prevent either Andy Dalton or Justin Fields from being buried in the ground. Leno bounced back from a rough start in 2019 and has been inarguably the team’s most consistent offensive lineman since. While he isn’t known for his ability to push the pile, the Bears averaged six yards per carry running behind Leno in 2020, according to Sharp Football Statistics.
2014 7th round draft pick 👉🏾 93 consecutive starts in the past 7 seasons with the team that I was drafted to.
My time in Chicago has officially come to an end. It’s a bittersweet day but I am excited to see where this next chapter takes me. pic.twitter.com/XJbJbop1kD
— Charles Leno Jr (@charleslenojr72) May 3, 2021
The Bears generally seem to agree that Leno was at least decent at his job or they wouldn’t have waited until after the draft to move on. Outside of a push for one of the league’s best in Trent Williams, we had no real evidence that the Bears were displeased with Leno. If they hadn’t moved up for a tackle, it seems they would’ve been just fine proceeding with him.
It was clear that Leno’s days were numbered when GM Ryan Pace insisted second-round pick Teven Jenkins could play left tackle. Pace then took a player he projects as a right tackle – Larry Borom – the very next day. The Bears essentially announced who they want at both tackle spots in 2022, but releasing Leno seems to have accelerated that timeline.
The Bears could’ve stuck with Leno and Whitehair on the left side, while allowing James Daniels, Germaine Ifedi and Jenkins to fight for the two spots on the right side of the line. Daniels could’ve even competed with Sam Mustipher at center. They had plenty of solid options.
The release of Leno will save the team money and allow Jenkins to step in at left tackle right away. There are some who believe moving linemen around is bad for their development, but the Bears don’t seem to subscribe to that theory. It might be unreasonable to expect the rookie to be as good as Leno, especially against the likes of Za’Darius Smith.
The Bears offensive line was a strength at the end of last year and Leno was a big part of that. If the Bears were trying to win enough games to make the playoffs and keep jobs, this doesn’t seem like a gamble they would take.
This certainly doesn’t mean the Bears are tanking (what sense would that make without a first round pick in 2022?) but it implies that they’re looking to the future; one they otherwise couldn’t be certain they’d have. If Jenkins can take his lumps in 2021, he’ll theoretically be ready to be the player they’re hoping for in 2022 when the team hopes to return to contention with Fields as the star of the show.
Of course, they have to be careful. Pace and Nagy wouldn’t be the first coach and GM duo to be promised job security only to have it taken away with a season that went off the rails.