It was this exact time last year when the Chicago Bears began their 2016 rookie development program in advance of grueling summer offseason program. The thin 6-foot-6 framed, recent first-round pick Leonard Floyd was the headliner to watch. He was a player Chicago needed to acclimate quickly as the Bears’ new defensive toy, albeit one who was a bit around the edges.
Back then, no one knew what to expect or project for the 24-year-old Floyd in his rookie season. Frankly, no one knew if he would even be able to hold up after injuries and sicknesses in training camp and the early parts of the 2016 season.
It led to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio giving quite the public honest assessment of his star pupil’s early teaching moments calling his camp “kind of choppy.” Floyd’s frame and raw athleticism played both into excitement and likewise, concerns of how the Bears would effectively deploy him.
Flash forward past a streaky rookie season full of injury issues, flashes of greatness (7.0 sacks in a five-game mid-season stretch), as well a teasing of special high-level play as a franchise pass rusher, and its easy to consider Floyd an incremental core piece for the Bear now. In fact, you could go as far as to say that his journey to become a dominant player will ultimately determine how successful the Bears defense is under Fangio.
Just look at how Chicago’s defense is structured right now.
Currently, the Bears are technically loaded on the front seven, but the pass rushing ability is largely the same. As is the quality but shaky depth.
Pernell McPhee, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Lamarr Houston, Jonathan Bullard (still don’t wholly know what to expect), and new free agent addition, Jaye Howard, are all primarily bull rushers when going after the passer. Willie Young is fine, but the 31-year-old veteran is better as your third or fourth edge rusher so as to not string him out.
Really the only player who offers a different element for Chicago’s defense is Floyd and his first step as a speed rusher.
There’s also the less than ideal secondary which features a lot of promising players such as Bryce Callahan, Deiondre’ Hall, and Cre’Von LeBlanc, but no true proven stars yet. No one that can capitalize on the ball to make a play or has made the leap in their own right to this point.
Couple in potential health issues for McPhee and a bum knee that’s troubled him for two seasons now, Goldman and ankles that have hampered his growth, Houston whose coming off of another torn ACL (and may not even make the roster), and Howard who passed the Bears’ physical last week but injured a hip flexor in December, and it becomes clear.
Whatever defensive strength the Bears are going to have now or in the near future as a winning unit, not just one derived successfully from quality statistical output (12th in sacks means nothing if you’re 24th in points allowed), centers around how good Floyd could and has to be. There’s too much invested in him defensively to go by the wayside.
The Bears themselves particularly know what to expect, or least hope for from the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Floyd. His innate talent and burst is what you watch for on a defense. It’s what sticks out. He’s the kind of homegrown pass rusher Chicago hasn’t possessed since the 1980’s in terms of natural ability.
When you consider that sentiment, road blocks for Floyd such as weight on his Gumby-like frame aren’t a concern for the powers that be such as Bears head coach John Fox.
“This league is about playing strength, it’s not just size. But he (Floyd) didn’t have an issue with playing strength. Like I said before, he’s going to develop.”
Indeed, what Floyd’s freakish length and speed allowed him to do in his first experiences against offensive tackles, was use great leverage and work his hands to create space. While he was always at risk of being mauled, Floyd did a fantastic job of playing intelligently and priding himself on avoiding direct contact against his major deficiency.
You saw this from Floyd on display in Green Bay against the Packers for the first time against a premier NFL offensive line.
Rodgers fumbles...— NFL (@NFL) October 21, 2016
Bears recover in the end zone!
: CBS + NFLN #TNF #CHIvsGB https://t.co/BZzkxJS5fy
Later, as he began to make a case for Defensive Rookie of the Year before a late cold stretch and injuries slowed him down, Floyd began to punctuate and use what he learned (setting up pass rush moves) against the San Francisco 49ers in December.
Leonard Floyd sack/safety pic.twitter.com/5qDA6jqvaC— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) December 4, 2016
This kind of brilliance was a marvel to watch from a Bears’ first-round pick when considering history in the last couple of decades, and the thing is, it can’t be as rare of an occurrence moving forward.
That next step in development for Floyd, though, well, its still actual size and strength, along with consistency.
While the Bears haven’t released any official figures yet, a comfortable playing weight for Floyd would probably be around 260 pounds as a rough estimate. Other loose NFL comparisons such as the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney or Rams’ Robert Quinn, stand at 267 pounds and 265 pounds while at 6-foot-five and 6-foot-four, respectively. Anchoring in more is beneficial for the second-year pass rusher when considering successful juxtapositions.
He might already be there when you see him in Bears photoshoots in advance of the upcoming season, though it can't be confirmed.
Floyd is never going to be stockily built, but at least he can make up for it with an attention to detail to his body that he no doubt paid this past offseason.
On the consistency for Floyd, that’s something that has to come with experience and training in competition. The best at their craft in getting after the quarterback are those who have a full arsenal to use against blockers and actually finish once they get in the backfield. These are players who can use speed and power while also setting people up. Above all, they always use their leverage and hands violently.
This is an aspect you saw Floyd particularly grow in during his late October through November productive stretch last year, but also where he left room for wanting more as a quarterback would evade him and he would instead get a pressure instead of a sack. Technique tackling-wise could be demonstratively better too, as to avoid concussion problems he suffered in the late season.
Many have compared Floyd to the 49ers’ once great, Aldon Smith, who had 42 sacks in his first three seasons with San Francisco. That’s a lofty number for anyone. Still, this isn’t to diminish what Smith did, but that defense Fangio helmed was much more talented, and allowed him to roam more free as a pure pass-rushing specialist. Talent-wise at least for now as the Bears are still putting their puzzle together.
Quite frankly, Floyd needs to be better than Smith was, and not necessarily in sack numbers, but as a complete player. He has to set the edge well and be a terror week in week out that quarterbacks fear. It’s not a stretch to put this in terms that he is the Bears’ defensive franchise guy they want to build around much like Mitchell Trubisky is the man they eventually want to build the offense around.
Seven sacks, two forced fumbles, just 16 pressures (good for 56th in the NFL), and appearing in only 12 games isn’t going to cut it for Floyd. The next marked step in his progression, especially since he’s already 24 and has his typical development track accelerated, is comfortably sitting well above double digit sacks, getting closer to the top-15 in pressures (around the mid-20’s), and playing in a majority of the season without any health issues. Naturally, a Pro Bowl selection would likely follow in this scenario .
No sophomore slump is acceptable for Floyd on his current platform.
That’s a lot to expect in a jump for what was once the Bears’ project defensive player in Floyd, but isn’t out of reason. Not by a long shot. If he makes the leap, and he can certainly do it, the added production will have ripple effects across the entire unit much like any great pass rusher does for their defense.
The Bears aren’t likened to be a very good football team in the 2017 season as parts of the roster are very malleable. It’ll be another year of development for many players on the team to flourish collectively in the future.
Floyd leads that youthful group again, and if he’s as special as the Bears believe he can be, then the defense will follow suit in similar performance.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.