Even the most hardcore Chicago Bears fan would be challenged to name the 12 left guards who started alongside Charles Leno Jr. during the 93 consecutive starts he made for the team at left tackle.
Getting more than six in a quiz would be a good score. Nine or more would be deserving of an A.
The list: Matt Slauson, Vladimir Ducasse, Patrick Omameh, Josh Sitton, Eric Kush, Tom Compton, Cody Whitehair, Bradley Sowell, James Daniels, Ted Larsen, Rashaad Coward and Arlington Hambright between Week 4 of the 2015 season and the end of 2020.
Amid the nearly constant turnover the Bears had everywhere else on the line, Leno was a mainstay spanning the John Fox and Matt Nagy regimes, a seventh-round draft pick in 2014 who turned into a valuable performer as the team never poured huge resources into a premium position.
When general manager Ryan Pace made a run at Trent Williams in free agency in March 2021, Leno figured his position could be tenuous. The Bears’ bid fell short when the San Francisco 49ers re-signed Williams to a record-setting contract. Leno then figured he was OK, especially knowing there was a good chance the team would attempt to trade up in Round 1 for a shot at a quarterback.
“When they made a run at Trent, I remember being with my wife,’” Leno said. “I said, ’Oh, that sucks. That means they’re looking to replace me.’ I didn’t want to accept it. Then they drafted a tackle (Teven Jenkins) in the second round. ‘Oh, OK, that could be the replacement right there,’ but once they went with another tackle in the fifth round (Larry Borom), that’s when I knew something has got to be up.
“That being said, I called people in the organization and they told me, ‘No, you’re fine. You’re safe. You’re on a one-year contract, and we’re not going to be able to pay you next year. These are just going to be your backups, and we want you to help groom them.’ They told me that and within less than 24 hours, I was being told by my agent I was being cut.”
Leno, 31, landed in Washington, signing a one-year contract with the Commanders and settling in quickly at left tackle. He allowed a hit on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick that ended the veteran’s season in the opener but played well throughout last season, earning a three-year, $37 million contract. He has maintained that level of play on a line that has struggled on the interior protecting quarterback Carson Wentz, who has been sacked 20 times, the third most in the NFL.
The Bears in 2021 signed veteran Jason Peters to play left tackle and this season have rookie fifth-round pick Braxton Jones on the blind side. Jones’ future remains unknown, but the Bears are interested in seeing him develop. While Leno isn’t the left tackle of the future for the Commanders, he has been a stabilizing influence in the locker room, allowing the organization to invest elsewhere. He was voted a captain this season.
“Charles has played very well,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said. “Plus he’s a leader. He handles the players very well. They look up to him. He came and quickly assimilated himself and he actually challenged a couple of guys and he showed some really serious leadership. It was the kind of stuff you hope for from a veteran guy and it really has taken off.
“That is really cool because when your teammates see that and respond to it, it’s a great thing. He’s so professional the way he handles that, and some of the young guys have learned from him. He’s been really good that way.”
It’s not going to be just another game for Leno on Thursday night at Soldier Field. His wife, Jen, is from Chicago, and her family is still here. He remains entrenched in the community doing charitable work he began early in his career.
“I’m going to be completely honest: It will be emotional,” he said,. “I spent seven years there. How can I be naive to say it’s not? I would be lying to myself. It’s going to be a different game. I need to focus on my job, and once it’s over, it’s going to be exciting. Going against some guys I practiced against, going to see some brother I was blocking with, like Cody (Whitehair). I’m looking forward to it. Can’t wait.”
Leno had some rough moments during the 2019 season but rebounded in 2020 and thought he played well enough to remain part of the Bears’ future. Consistent turnover elsewhere on the line took a toll. It’s not an excuse but a reality when realizing continuity is something all good lines require for steady improvement.
“Guys got shuffled in,” Leno said. “I had five offensive line coaches in Chicago, five offensive coordinators and a countless number of quarterbacks and guards I played next to. I think I was doing something right. It’s just hard to succeed with stuff like that going. If I was able to be there for that long, I think I did a pretty damn good job.”
When some veterans are cut, especially post-draft, they find a landing spot and then quickly shuffle out of the league. Leno was able to become rooted with the Commanders, so perhaps change was best for him.
“Leaving a place like Chicago, a place I called home for seven years, I thought I was going to finish my career there,” Leno said. “It didn’t work out that way. That could have been it for me. One-year deal, I would have been done after (last) year and it would have been over. It’s all about how you respond.”
It was a whirlwind for his family. They moved with two young girls — Carsynn (now 2) and Oaklynn (now 1) — and Jen became pregnant late in the season. They added a third girl — Jordynn — over the summer.
Those are dynamics that cannot be overlooked when a veteran is trying to settle in with a new franchise.
“(Jen) keeps me levelheaded when I am too down and when I’m too high,” Leno said. “That is definitely something that has to be taken into consideration. A partner is either going to help you grow or fail. If your partner isn’t helping you get better, are they really helping you at all? That’s one thing my wife does. Whatever it takes. The sacrifices she made so I can continue to play this game is huge. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I would be.”
Terry McLaurin, Commanders wide receiver
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
McLaurin, 6-foot, 210 pounds, was drafted in the third round out of Ohio State in 2019, the 12th receiver selected in his class, three picks after the Bears chose running back David Montgomery.
McLaurin, 27, had 919 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie and put together consecutive 1,000-yard seasons after that to earn a three-year, $68.2 million extension in July. He has 19 receptions for 326 yards (17.2 average) and one touchdown this season and 11 100-yard games in 51 career starts with a carousel of quarterbacks throwing him the ball.
“He’s detailed and savvy as a route runner,” the scout said. “McLaurin has good top-end speed in terms of the stopwatch, but I don’t look him as a blazer or a vertical-stretch option in their offense. I think of him as an intermediate route runner who is excellent at setting up and manipulating coverage and finding soft zones on in-breaking routes. He can win isolation routes outside the numbers. If there is someone you want to compare his game to, I think it’s like Keenan Allen of the Los Angeles Chargers.
“McLaurin is a possession-type receiver who has enough top-end speed to be schemed as a vertical target when they want to do that. But he’s probably a 1-B when you’re talking about elite wide receivers. There are only a few 1-As in the NFL, the Davante Adamses, Tyreek Hills and Cooper Kupps. He’s not in that tier but he is a really high 1-B in my mind. He can be a downfield threat in Scott Turner’s offense. Those skinny posts they throw are caught between 12 and 15 yards, and he can take off when he gets one of those. They have talent around him at the skill positions and a quarterback in Carson Wentz who is more than willing to attack tight windows and attack the third level of the defense.”