As NFL drafts progress, expectations from draft picks decline. First-round selections are expected to be Day 1 starters, mid-round picks have starter potential and late-round selections are typically special teams fodder.
Diving into the seventh round, few players ascend into starting roles. In fact, the vast majority of seventh-round picks don’t last two seasons in the NFL. So to get value out of a last-round pick, that’s gravy.
In training camp, he played both left and right tackle, demonstrating a strong hand punch and good balance. He was inactive for seven of the club’s first eight games, yet he finally saw field team last week against the Packers, filling at right tackle for nine snaps.
Heading into this week’s contest against the Vikings, Leno will serve as the club’s primary swing tackle. An injury anywhere along the offensive line will likely thrust Leno into the starting lineup, making him one of the most important backups on the team.
Not bad for the 246th pick in the draft.
Bear Report sat down with Leno to discuss his first NFL snaps, his development as a rookie and this weekend’s contest against Minnesota.
“Well, I finally got into my first NFL game. I’d been waiting for quite a while to get that opportunity and when it finally came, I was surprisingly nervous. The nerves went away immediately when the first play started and I was fine from there on.
“It was quite an experience being there at Lambeau Field. Any guy who has played football for most of his life has heard about the history behind Lambeau. That stadium, along with Soldier Field and a few others, are some of the most prestigious places to play in the NFL. It was impressive to see it for the first time.
“The results of the game were not at all what we had expected or wanted. It’s crushing to go to an away game thinking you have a good chance to pull out a win, then it just doesn’t happen. We felt that we let down our fans and ourselves. It definitely wasn’t for lack of effort. Each guy on our team was giving 100 percent on every play.”
You played nine snaps against the Packers. Describe being on an NFL field for the first time in your career.
“Really exciting. I’d worked hard all week and by Sunday I was ready to roll. In looking at the game film I think I did pretty well for a first effort.
“I feel comfortable at the right tackle position and hope I can get the chance to line up again. I’m not sure of Jordan [Mills’] situation right now in terms of his injury. I believe he is day-to-day depending on how he’s feeling and what he is able to do on the field.
“You never want anybody to go down and you get your shot that way, but if it happens, then you have to be ready. I saw that Jordan got hurt on a series and right away I knew I’d be headed in. I had been preparing on the sidelines all game, so aside from the short period of being nervous, I was ready to go.
“I was torn mentally on Sunday night between the excitement of finally being able to be out there on the field and seeing the team struggle against the Packers. What I was able to do or not do was not as important as how the team did as a whole.
“What I learned out there was that no matter what happens on the field, good or bad, you have to take it one play at a time. There’s no use in looking back or looking ahead. Just concentrate on what is in front of you.
“I was extremely upset that we lost. That game was so important to us individually and as a team. We had planned to come out fast and get a jump on Green Bay but things turned sour almost immediately. Bad momentum can build up in that type of situation and it’s hard to turn things around. Looking at the film after the game, I could see how things began to fall apart.
“It’s different for a rookie when you are looking at film from an NFL game and for the first time you are in there. I was able to study my errors and see what I did do right. That’s a whole new view from just watching film of practice. The goal for me from now on is to maximize the good and eliminate the bad.
“This week I will be practicing as if I will get playing time. There are some injuries to starters on my side of the ball so you never know who will get called up to fill in. It’s much better to be completely prepared than to have your number called and be clueless. I don’t think any decision will be made until the end of the week, possibly as late as Saturday night.
“I’ve been trying to make myself into a versatile player, being ready and able to play anywhere on the line the coaches choose to put me. In the past week or so, I’ve been working with the position coach on the particular skill set for lining up at right tackle. Jordan has been giving me pointers as well, which I greatly appreciate.
“I’m in the weight room a lot trying to build strength and endurance. You have to have that for sure. I eat well, pay attention to my overall conditioning. I’m working on all aspects of my craft every day.
“I’ve been lining up in practice against some of the top defenders in the league and that has been excellent preparation. When I got nervous the other night I remembered that I go against Jared Allen every day. His speed, his intensity is always way up there. He’s definitely tough and completely intimidating. If I can match that, then I’m OK.
“I’ve been doing a lot in practice. Today I was in [the starting lineup] for quite a few reps. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring though. It could all change. You never know. I don’t try to control any of that, just do what I’m told and be productive day by day.
“I think speed, power, a good sense of the play and acceleration off the ball are important to the right tackle position. Obviously, you also have to block effectively. I’m a big guy at 6’3, 300-plus pounds and that helps too. Bulk can be effective if it is utilized correctly. I know I have a long way to go but I am somewhat satisfied with my progress thus far.
“Going forward we all know we have to raise the level of play and move forward. We’ve got to get the job done. It’s weighing on us that we don’t have our first home win yet. We’re working hard on the game plan right now, preparing to meet the Vikings. The key is to have positive plays one on top of each other with no room for any negative plays. Any negativity slows us down, takes the momentum away. That’s never good.
“There’s something to learn from every game you’re in, win, lose or draw. We are finding things to build on from last week and turn things around going forward. That’s how you move a team in a positive direction.
“The Vikings defense is good. They fly around the ball, get things done. They’re fast and intense and have good linebackers. I feel it will be a good challenge for us. I like the way we practiced today though, and feel if we can keep that up, we’ll be good. We know we’ve got to get this one on Sunday but it’s still one game at a time.”
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 14 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.