In his fifth NFL season, Charles Leno Jr. continues to be one of the most underappreciated players in the league. This is nothing new to him as Leno has been overlooked his entire football career.
Just a three-star recruit coming out of high school, he was rated as the 54th best offensive tackle in the country and 771st overall player according to 247Sports. He chose to commit to Boise State over other schools such as Idaho, San Diego State and UNLV. Not exactly schools you expect to hear associated with a top NFL talent.
Despite starting 39 straight games for Boise State, including the last 26 at left tackle, anchoring an offensive line that ranked first and sixth nationally in sacks per game in 2011 and 2012, he still was not considered a top end talent heading into the NFL draft.
Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com at the time listed him as a fifth- to sixth-round prospect better suited as a guard than a tackle given his shorter frame. Nawrocki was not alone in predicting a position change for Leno. That was the general consensus in nearly every pre-draft evaluation. Gil Brandt, former Vice President of player personnel, had this to say when the Bears drafted him.
“Leno is described as a high-cut guy with a short torso and long legs. His best NFL position is probably guard rather than tackle.”
In fact, if you check Leno’s Pro Football Reference page it still lists him as an offensive guard despite never playing the position in the NFL.
Leno’s smaller than typical size and potential positional switch caused him to be overlooked once again. Luckily, he fell into the Bears’ laps in the seventh round. All 32 NFL teams, including the Bears, passed on him multiple times.
Leno has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism over the years, especially early on. Interestingly, his first career start came against no other than Khalil Mack, when the Bears took on the Raiders in 2015. Mack had a very Mack-like game with five total pressures and a sack.
After a rough start to his career, he has improved every season and has gone from liability to average starter and now he’s much more than that. But his reputation in fans eyes seems to be stuck at that of a solid yet unspectacular starter.
But it is time to start recognizing him for what he really is …
A Top-Tier NFL Left Tackle
His pressure rate his first season as a starter was 8.2 percent. He has improved with each season and is currently sitting at a fantastic 3.6 percent. That number places him sixth best among left tackles.
As you can see, Leno has steadily improved each season.
Pro Football Focus likes Leno even more than the stats suggest. He is currently their third-rated pass blocking tackle in the entire NFL. That includes both left and right tackles. He is only behind David Bakhtiari and Terron Armstead in this category and beats out some tremendous players such as Andrew Whitworth, Trent Williams and Jake Matthews (who was a top-10 pick in Leno’s draft year) just to name a few.
Leno is able to handle speed around the edge and anchor against bull rushes as well as some of the best tackles in the league. He had a tendency to bend and reach earlier in his career, which caused him to lose balance. But nowadays, those lapses are few and far between.
Another sign that Leno is playing the best football of his career is his lack of penalties. Even just last season he struggled to stay out of trouble. He was penalized 13 times last season, which doubled his total from the two previous years. Holding penalties and even false starts are a sign of an offensive lineman who is getting beat often and needing to overcompensate.
So far this season, Leno has yet to be penalized. He is one of only three offensive tackles who has played at least 50 percent of their teams snaps to accomplish this feat. Now, some of that is luck as holding can realistically be called on any given play but there’s no question Leno is beating his man more often than not.
Despite all of this, Leno is never mentioned in the same conversation as the other top tackles in the NFL. But that needs to start changing. As it stands, he is solidly in the top five at his position.
Leno is a testament to what hard work and dedication can lead to. Even now as he has more success he still has the mindset of a seventh-round pick trying to make the roster. Here is what he told Kevin Fishbain of the Athletic when asked about his practice routine,
“I have this weird thing about me where I’m never good enough,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing to have. Some people think they’re the shit and that’s when they get destroyed out there. I never feel that way … It sounds weird, but that’s how I’ve been coached since high school and college. I go out there and try to fix something every single practice. Even if I’m really good at it, even if I’m really bad at it, I’m trying to fix something.”
He has been undervalued his entire football career, luckily Ryan Pace and company saw his true potential and rewarded him before last season with a contract extension for all of his hard work. That extension will make him the 38th highest paid offensive linemen next season and 14th highest paid left tackle. If they would have waited until after last season to lock him up, they would have had to pay him much more. Instead, they have a top player at a premium position locked up through 2021 on an extremely team-friendly deal.
If Leno keeps this performance up, he is well on his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance. He’s been overlooked and undervalued, but that is about to change.