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Will Leonard Floyd be Worth the Gamble?

After having his first top pick go down with an injury before playing a professional game, Ryan Pace doubled down and moved up in the draft to secure a guy with a few question marks attached. What level of performance will justify Pace's investment?

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With the 9th pick in the NFL draft, the Chicago Bears took an outside linebacker known more for speed and versatility than for power. Sixteen years later, history repeated itself. The last time Chicago picked a linebacker in the top ten of the draft was 2000, and that linebacker was Brian Urlacher. Coincidently, Urlacher was also taken with the 9th pick. I am going to state, on record, I do not think there is any way Leonard Floyd becomes the next Brian Urlacher. It is possible I am wrong, in which case I will gleefully offer an apology to all who ask, but most especially to Leonard Floyd. Urlacher was a franchise-defining player.

However, it is possible for a high pick to be successful without becoming a 4-time first team All-Pro and 8-time Pro Bowler. With respect to the members of the community who point out the futility of tracking certain numbers, I wanted to get a sense as to what reasonable expectations might be for Leonard Floyd when it came to his stat line. I also wanted to take a moment to point out that for some people, unless he is the next Urlacher, he will never be "good" enough. He was not the guy they wanted, and therefore he was a mistake. No numbers will be enough, and even though it's pretty well-established that the Giants were going to take him, Pace should not have gone up to get him.

On a related note, it should be interesting to watch the career of Vic Beasley over the next few years. Many wanted him for the Bears, and he was taken in almost the exact same spot as Floyd.

However, there are others to look at besides Beasley. All told, since 2000, twenty linebackers have been taken within 5 spots of Floyd (picks #4 to #14). Some of these men played very different positions, and some of them had different expectations based on those positions. However, five played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment, and with one exception it reads like a list worthy of envying (in ascending order of pick): Brian Orakpo, DeMarcus Ware, Barkevious Mingo, Khalil Mack, and Von Miller. The average draft position of these five is between the 7th and 8th pick, and they combine for 17 pro bowl selections.

Interestingly, three of these five men were 23 when they were drafted, just like Floyd. Across their rookie years, they each recorded an average of 2.6 passes deflected, 1.6 forced fumbles, just under 8 sacks, and around 45 tackles without a single safety or interception. While I could not find reliable quarterback pressure stats for Ware, the other four averaged 11 hurries in their first year (what this actually means is that the other three had 7-8 hurries apiece and Mack had 22).

That stat-line applied to the Bears' 2015 campaign would have placed Floyd eighth in passes deflected, first in forced fumbles, second in sack production, and fifth in tackles. That's good, but that's not "eye-popping" good. It represents a solid player who has one very good trick and is making some big plays when the opportunity arises—not someone who dominates from the first snap.

Here are a few things for all of us to keep in mind during the upcoming season. If someone told us that the ninth pick was spent to get our team's fifth-best tackler, we might be upset; we would be much less upset if we knew that the ninth pick was spent on the next Von Miller (2011). If we learned that Pace traded up to get the team's sixth-best player at breaking up passes, we might throw a pencil; we'd sing Pace's praises if he got us the next Khalil Mack (2014). Passing on Vernon Hargreaves might be tough to swallow for a guy who only gets us 19% of the team's quarterback hurries; it sounds pretty good if it means picking up the next Brian Orakpo (2009). Note that for each of these scenarios, I deliberately picked one of the "middle" players in the group.

This is not intended as spin. Instead, it is simply meant to point out that even very, very good players rarely dominate across the board from the very first moment. It could be that Floyd starts out as a situational player. If in those situations he deflects some passes, forces a turnover or two, and racks up some sacks and some tackles behind the line of scrimmage, then he will be on his way. However, for the Bears to use Floyd as a dedicated pass-rusher would likely be a waste of talent.

Let's go back to that list of 20 linebackers drafted about where the Bears selected Floyd and consider their average careers. As a group, they had less than one interception per player per year, and they averaged fewer than four sacks per year. True, not all of these players were dedicated pass-rushers. Not all of them dropped back into coverage. However, the best of these linebackers were multi-faceted talents. They grew into players who contributed in multiple ways.

What I want to see from Floyd in 2016 is either consistency or a few strong flashes. What I want to see from him across his career is that he evolves into more than a one-trick pony. His history shows that he can do more than one thing well. With Fox and Fangio around to coach him, I want to see him take the next step. However, I think that if he matches the rookie performance of the other linebackers taken early over the last several years, it will be reason for cautious optimism.