When the Chicago Bears traded up to select Leonard Floyd with the ninth overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft, the move didn’t come without skepticism. Some saw Floyd as too raw and thin in comparison to other more polished prospects. Chicago had other needs too, and even seemed to receive a bit of fortune with the pre-draft consensus best offensive tackle in the Miami Dolphins’ Laremy Tunsil falling to their slot. Everyone outside of the organization generally believed that’s who the Bears were moving up to acquire.
Though, that was all hindsight and pointless conjecture given the incomplete information available on hand in April. Floyd had never played an NFL game after all. The more common post-rationalization was that the New York Giants were set to draft Floyd with the 10th overall selection, so the Bears had to make their move on the man they wanted, regardless of any outside dissenting opinions. It had been 20 years since the Bears traded up in the first round of the draft, so a new precedent was set. General manager Ryan Pace explained himself that he felt strongly he had to make the move in Chicago’s rebuilding process.
“We were concerned he would go a couple picks ahead of us,” said Pace back in April. This is a guy we identified, a guy we wanted, so we didn’t sit on our hands.”
If the dissenters had been paying attention, they would have recognized why Pace so desperately wanted to add Floyd to his roster. Many in the pre and post-draft process had praised Floyd as a “physical freak” in comparison to Cleveland Browns star linebacker Jamie Collins, and as a man who had a rare combination of athleticism and pass rush ability, even if not always deployed in that fashion. Pro Football Focus even had Floyd graded as the second best edge defender in the draft class, second only to the number three overall pick in the San Diego Chargers’ Joey Bosa. There was cautious vibrant optimism mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
It was going to take time. Ideally, with the proper strength program and coaching, Floyd would become a superstar while transcending past all criticism and living up to high expectations.
If only events could always be that simple.
After misuse as a coverage linebacker early, there was building sentiment that Pace had drafted two consecutive busts in Floyd and wide receiver, Kevin White - who will not play again this season because of injury. Floyd just wasn’t making enough of an impact with only a half sack in his first four games played. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio even called Floyd’s first preseason “choppy and inconsistent” while noting that he’s not upset, just concerned with his star pupil.
Injuries contributed too, including being carted off the field early in training camp, as well as a calf injury that had Floyd miss time against the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars. Frustration was mounting around Floyd, particularly in how this team needed to him become a factor. It’s funny how consistency develops once a player is available and gains confidence.
Floyd’s star first shone in Green Bay, as he had two sacks, a forced fumble, and a touchdown. It was where Floyd offered glimpses of a homegrown pass rusher the Bears haven’t had in a long time while doing this:
These flashes were all on a pitch count, playing 35 of 79 snaps, and Floyd was finally being properly utilized - with only greater play to come.
Since his breakout at Lambeau Field, Floyd has been a terror every time he’s stepped on the field. The Minnesota Vikings and their horrid offensive line were torn asunder by Floyd as he began experiencing the first double teams of his career. In Tampa Bay, Floyd was routinely in quarterback Jameis Winston’s grill, while attaining 1.5 sacks. He arguably should have had even more considering the many free shots he had at Winston, but several quarterback pressures is still notable.
But all of this progression seemed lost after a scary injury that had Floyd lying motionless on the MetLife Field turf against the Giants - with the Bears organization holding its collective breath. It turned out Floyd only needed to enter the concussion protocol, but who knew when he would step on the field again in 2016. This was the Bears’ prized first round piece that they had to be cautious with. Floyd himself had similar sentiments, even while not recalling the entire incident for obvious reasons.
“I can’t remember much, but I remember the trainers telling me I was going to be fine,” said Floyd of his frightening moment.
As it turns out, after missing Chicago’s game against the Tennessee Titans, Floyd picked up right where left off against San Francisco. With two sacks, the latter of which an exclamation point safety, Floyd continued to dominate in turning tackles into turnstiles. That safety also has him outscoring a receiver in Alshon Jeffery on the season. Both a fact of indictment and praise.
Since Week 7, Floyd has 6.5 sacks, and 16 tackles. He now leads all rookies in sacks as he’s been getting to the quarterback regularly while using his best asset - speed. Every week has a new step in his development too. While he’s grown, Fangio has begun to feature him more and more in stunts and plays to get him free. And in that same time frame, he’s been adding excellent use of his hands and other pass rushing moves that only great ones possess.
Watch Floyd blow by the tackle there. Watch him use his hands and set up his blocker to create space. The Floyd of September would not have accomplished that. The Floyd of September would not have had the wherewithal or instinct to finish this play. A perfect demonstration of his continual work.
And remember that Floyd is still relatively undersized and rail thin for his position at 240 pounds while putting on these shows. It puts into perspective just how far ahead Floyd is from the rest of the pack. There’s a high ceiling for a guy getting hot at the right time.
“I try to get to the quarterback as much as I can, as quickly as I can,” said Floyd of his special, relentless finishing ability.
Getting to the quarterback is becoming an art form in Floyd’s case, as the candidacy for the prime defensive rookie could not be going any more swimmingly.
Come February, when the NFL Awards are handed out, Floyd will have stiff competition to be Defensive Rookie of the Year. Other young stalwarts, like the aforementioned Bosa - who has 5.5 sacks on the season - but has slowed down of late with just 1.5 sacks in his last five games, will be in the conversation. Count others such as the Jaguars duo of cornerback Jalen Ramsey - who has shut down most receivers he’s covered - and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue who has six sacks on the season of his own, too.
But none of these players are making the same impact Floyd is.
Other candidates aside, keep in mind that Floyd has become the central focus of offense’s attempting to keep their game plans afloat. Considering Floyd should already be the favorite with flash plays regularly, if he finishes the last four games of the 2016 season in this fashion of late - there won’t even be a debate.
Floyd is the league’s best defensive rookie and should be acknowledged as such.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.