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Charles Leno talks potential Whitehair extension, Trubisky's charge and practice battles with Mack and Floyd
BOURBONNAIS — All Bears LT Charles Leno has done since signing his four-year, $38 million contract extension two summers ago — weeks before the start of his would-be walk year — is start 33-of-33 possible games, play all but eight of the total snaps on offense and earn his first Pro Bowl recognition following the 2018 campaign.
"Charles is using his strengths. The way Charles plays, he’s a very good athlete, very smart and he’s tough," Bears O-line coach Harry Hiestand said last fall of Leno after his first few months back on the job. "So he uses all three of those. I’ve really been impressed with that."
Leno, who is still ascending at age 27 and should have another chance to cash in before his 30th birthday, perhaps, then, is the perfect person to ask why new (and old) O-line neighbor Cody Whitehair — likely Ryan Pace's next early extension target — should also reward his team's faith by continuing to raise his game after his first big NFL payday.
"I'll tell you one thing: I know I work hard. And Cody Whitehair is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in my life," Leno recently told PFW. "I swear. I put that on everything I love. That dude works hard, he’s committed, he cares about … he’ll give you the clothes off his back if you want him to. He’s that type of person, and I love him for that. So, I know he’s going to be taken care of. I don’t know when, anything like that, but I know for a fact because he’s that great of a guy."
Leno is reuniting this season with his pal on the left side of the Bears offensive line, one of only a handful across the NFL poised to return all five starters. Whitehair, after joining Leno for the first time last year as a Pro Bowl alternate, is pivoting from center to left guard, where he hasn't played regularly since his rookie preseason. But Leno and him have been tight ever since Whitehair arrived as a 2016 second-rounder, and it's clear there's already plenty of communication and trust — the two biggest advantages, Leno says, of Chicago's enviable O-line cohesion.
"You know those guys got your back. Sometimes, you don’t even have to say anything. It’s really good."
And the Bears offensive line should be really good this season, but the questions most asked about this team are whether two of its past three first-rounders, Mitch Trubisky and Leonard Floyd, are ready to be really good, too. They were also both alternates in the Pro Bowl last season, but the 2018 campaign for Trubisky and Floyd is viewed by most with an asterisk: the third-year quarterback was at times brilliant, at others too inconsistent; the fourth-year outside linebacker started slowly, albeit with a broken hand, before playing arguably the best football of his career down the stretch but still tallying only four sacks, marking the third straight season that total decreased.
Leno, again, as Trubisky's blind-side protector and Floyd's main practice adversary — never mind having worn the navy and orange longer than all but three current players — felt like the right brain to pick on the subjects.
"Mitch being Mitch. Cool, calm, collected, just going about his business, going to work, ignoring all the outside noise," Leno says of Trubisky's third year thus far. "Being the guy that he’s supposed to be. We’re not asking Mitch to set world records or nothing like that. We’re asking Mitch to be the quarterback for the Chicago Bears. That’s what he’s doing right now, and he’s doing a fantastic job."
There's already been plenty of talk about iron sharpening iron in Bourbonnais. For instance, Floyd and of course former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack giving Leno and Bobby Massie all they can handle on a down-to-down basis. Leno admitted Mack and Floyd have provided great challenges, and he expounded specifically on how it's helping the Bears veteran tackles, but not before pointing out that there's also a reason he's out there.
"I’m up for that challenge. Pfft, I’m a great player too, you know what I’m saying? I believe in myself, I’m confident in myself and I want those guys to get better," he said. "If I bring my A-game, they bring their A-game, iron sharpens iron.
"As far as offensive linemen, you can worry about what the other guy has — the speed, the power, all that stuff — but you should focus on you even more. You have to focus on your technique more, you have to focus on you and your job, because that’s the only way you’re going to block those guys."
Floyd also said he loves battling Leno in practice, each of them different because the left tackle is "an overall great player" and "[does] a lot of studying and comes up with something different each day to negate what you did the day before."
Leno, who's among the Bears more underrated players, certainly appreciates the recognition. However, stopping to listen or pat himself on the back isn't how he went from Boise State to former GM Phil Emery's last pick five years ago — selection No. 246 of 256 overall (!) — to one of the foundational pieces of a Super Bowl contender, seemingly with a finger on the pulse of his whole team.
"My goal every time I try and step on the field is to be better than I was yesterday," he says. "Just getting one percent better than I was yesterday. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less, because if I do that, then I know I’m going to make gains."
— Arthur Arkush