Ryan Pace doubled down on his statement that second-round pick Teven Jenkins potentially can play left tackle. That’s the biggest takeaway after a league source said the Chicago Bears will release Charles Leno Jr., their longest-tenured offensive lineman.
Actions are more instructive about a team’s intentions than words, and the release of Leno, 29, means Jenkins could be the Week 1 starter on the blind side. The move creates a major void on the offensive line as Leno made 93 consecutive starts and was named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate after the 2018 season.
Leno’s release will clear $9 million in space for the salary-cap strapped Bears as it is being designated as a post-June 1 cut. He was entering the final year of his contract and was due to earn $9 million, including a $100,000 workout bonus.
Even after drafting Jenkins, the move is a surprise as Leno has been a model of durability for the Bears. The team’s poor salary cap situation likely played a factor in the decision.
The Bears didn’t do the veteran any favors by waiting until after the draft to release him, but there’s a good chance he finds work quickly. Leno played better in 2020 than he did the year before, and experienced linemen with clean medical histories are tough to come by in May. The Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers are teams potentially in need of a left tackle.
Most talent evaluators pegged Jenkins — for whom the Bears traded up 13 spots to draft at No. 39 — as a right tackle or potentially a guard, but that’s not the case at Halas Hall. Jenkins made 26 starts at right tackle over four seasons at Oklahoma State, seven at left tackle and two at right guard.
“We feel that his best fit is at either tackle spot for us,” Pace said Friday. “There’s plenty of left tackle tape, so we feel that he can play both tackle positions and we’ve just got to sort through that.”
The Leno move indicates the Bears have finished evaluating the situation — or at least are comfortable covering the position despite not having a player on the roster who has started an NFL game at left tackle. Pace said the team had a first-round grade on Jenkins in explaining the trade up to get him before a run on offensive tackles started in Round 2.
Jenkins has a good-sized frame at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, his listed size on the team’s website, but his 33½-inch arms are shorter than ideal for a left tackle.
“I could play anywhere,” Jenkins said. “This whole past offseason, going before that, through high school, middle school, I was only a right tackle. And coming into college they switched me around a lot. Left guard, left tackle, right guard, right tackle. And this whole past offseason getting ready for the draft: Look, it’s so easy for me to get into a right-handed stance, I’m going to go left the whole time. That’s one thing I’ve been working on this past offseason and even before that. I even tell Coach, ‘Let me get some snaps at left tackle in practice, just in case anything goes down.’
“I just carried myself through practice in that manner and just kept on going that way. I feel like I could play any position. Let me also introduce that I’ve been also snapping. Just in case anything happens, I can also snap the ball at center and go on and do that too.”
The Bears figure to be set at center after the emergence of Sam Mustipher during the second half of last season, and they likely want to keep Cody Whitehair at left guard after he played well there in 2020. Having Whitehair between a rookie left tackle and Mustipher, who has only seven starts, makes sense.
James Daniels likely will move to right guard in his return from a torn pectoral muscle last season, and the Bears re-signed Germain Ifedi to a one-year, $4.25 million contract with the idea of him playing right tackle, the position he moved to during the final month of 2020.
“Could (Jenkins) play left tackle? Yes,” Oklahoma State offensive line coach Charlie Dickey said. “He’s going to be a dominant right tackle in that league. He can also play guard too. He will be an asset wherever they decide to put him.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy believes Jenkins is more talented than Russell Okung, whom the Seattle Seahawks drafted with the No. 6 pick in 2010, saying Jenkins is only beginning to scratch the surface of his talent. Okung is a free agent but was a two-time Pro Bowl performer in Seattle.
“He’s so talented athletically below the hips that I can’t imagine they couldn’t train him either way (left or right tackle),” Gundy said. “I’ve never coached in the NFL so I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, but when you guys get to watch him in practice and in training and see his athleticism, I think you’re going to see that he could stay on either side of the ball.”
Barring another major development, it appears Jenkins at least will be tried first at left tackle. The Bears signed Elijah Wilkinson as a potential swing tackle, but his experience with the Denver Broncos was limited to right tackle and guard. Alex Bars is in the mix as a super sub who can fill in almost anywhere across the line, and Lachavious Simmons, a seventh-round pick a year ago, spent some time at left tackle in practice last year.
The Bears used their fifth-round pick on Missouri right tackle Larry Borom, and he might be able to remain there but could have to play inside because of limited athleticism.
Leno turned into a terrific find for the Bears as a seventh-round pick in 2014. He got on the field for good in his second season and held down the position for six years. The Bears explored the possibility of signing Trent Williams in free agency before he returned to the San Francisco 49ers on a record-setting contract.
Now they need Jenkins to develop quickly, especially with Ifedi on a one-year contract and without a first-round pick in 2022 as a result of the trade up to select quarterback Justin Fields. Protecting Fields will hinge in part on how Jenkins performs.