The 2014 seventh-round draft pick started 95 consecutive games since 2015 and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2018. But a salary cap crunch — and the Bears drafting Teven Jenkins in the second round — forecast this move.
When the Bears traded up to take Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins in the second round of the NFL Draft on Friday, Jenkins looked a bookend for Bears left tackle Charles Leno. Instead, he’s likely Leno’s replacement.
Needing to create salary-cap space just to sign their 2021 rookie class, the Bears on Monday cut the 29-year-old Leno — who has started 95 consecutive games at left tackle and made the Pro Bowl in 2018. The Bears will save $9 million in cap space by cutting Leno with a June 1 designation.
A seventh-round pick out of Boise State by previous GM Phil Emery in 2014, Leno replaced veteran Jermon Bushrod early in the 2015 season and never missed a start — 93 consecutive regular-season games plus two playoff games. He signed a four-year, $38 million extension through 2021 prior to the 2017 season.
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
I will always be rooting for the young guys to succeed in the league. That was me years ago. This is just part of the business. Thanks Bears fans ✊
— Charles Leno Jr (@charleslenojr72) May 3, 2021
Leno also has been an exemplary team representative, on and off the field. Leno and his wife Jennifer have been active in charitable causes, including their “Leno Claus’ 25 Day Countdown To Christmas” program that provided nearly $35,000 in donations and gifts to non-profit organizations and individuals last year.
Leno confirmed the Bears’ plans on Twitter on Monday morning, with an acknowledgement of the road Bushrod paved for him.
“My time in Chicago has officially come to an end,” Leno tweeted. “It’s a bittersweet day but I am excited to see where this next chapter takes me.”
“I will always be rooting for the young guys to succeed in the league. That was me years ago. This is just part of the business. Thanks Bears fans”
Leno’s performance was heavily debated in Chicago, but his dependability was unquestioned. Since replacing Bushrod in the second half of a 26-0 loss to the Seahawks in Week 3 of the 2015 season, Leno played 6,213-of-6,229 snaps (99.7%) at left tackle over the next 95 games, including two playoff games.
At 29, Leno certainly will find a spot in the NFL, probably as a starter. As for the Bears, based on Pace’s endorsement they figure to plug Jenkins in at Leno’s left tackle spot and leave veteran Germain Ifedi at right tackle, where Ifedi started the final seven games last season (including the playoff game) in place of injured starter Bobby Massie, who was released after the season.
The Bears also have former Broncos starting right tackle Elijah Wilkinson (whom the Bears signed in free agency), 2020 seventh-round draft pick Lachavious Simmons, 2019 undrafted free agent Alex Bars and 2021 fifth-round draft pick Larry Borom to potentially contend for the right tackle spot.
Pace predictably would not get into specifics when asked about the offensive line for 2021. They could end up with Jenkins at left tackle, James Daniels at left guard, Sam Mustipher at center, Cody Whitehair at right guard and Ifedi at right tackle. Mustipher, a 2019 undrafted free agent, held his own in six games at center at the end of last season. But the Bears have not said they’re committed to him starting in 2021 — and both Daniels and Whitehair have extensive starting experience at center. Daniels is returning after missing the final 11 games (plus the playoff game) last season with a pectoral injury.
With Jenkins and Borom this season in addition to Simmons, 2020 seventh-round lineman Arlington Hambright, Mustipher and Bars from the previous two seasons, Pace and coach Matt Nagy are putting their trust in second-year offensive line coach Juan Castillo to develop the inexperienced linemen into front-line players.
“I think Juan Castillo does an unbelievable job developing these guys,” Pace said. “There are just certain coaches in the league hat you know when you put a young player in their room you just have so much confidence they are going to grow and develop. Juan just has a long history of that.”
Still, it remains to be seen if the Bears will be as good without Leno, who was an overachiever as a seventh-round draft pick, but had issues with consistency and penalties that prevented him from reaching another level. He could be one of those good-but-not-great linemen you couldn’t wait to get an upgrade for, but ends up being harder to replace than you thought. It’s Castillo’s job to make sure that scenario doesn’t ensue.