Venture around conversation concerning the Chicago Bears this part of the long NFL summer and the best bet, is that a lot of it centers around Leonard Floyd.
There's obvious considerable excitement surrounding the edge rusher heading into his second season. When you note that the 24-year-old enjoyed a fantastic rookie year with seven sacks while showcasing the ability that made him the No. 9 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, most begin to imagine the immense possibilities moving forward. It's quite possible the Bears could be grooming their best homegrown pass rusher since Richard Dent or Dan Hampton in the 1980's. Floyd's potential in that light, and the buoy he'd offer the modern Bears as an elite pass rusher, cannot be discounted.
The hype for the jump in production Floyd can make as a young player is real.
However, much of that anticipation is still tempered, rife with nervous anxiety given the health issues Floyd has already dealt with but one NFL season under his belt.
That health, of course, is referring to the two concussions suffered by Floyd in 2016, the latter of which sent him into a cloudy fog until earlier this February. Floyd's experiences with head injuries aren't necessarily new for a professional football player. In fact, at this rate, it's more ingrained into the job description of inevitability for anyone who participates in football at it's amateur levels, let alone on it's highest plane.
The good news is that Floyd is aware of how he has to change the way he plays while still understanding the tremendous risk of re-injury is there for him and all of his teammates as well as counterparts.
"Refinement of tackling technique" and "discipline" have been a common subject that's surrounded Floyd this off-season as he's worked to be more durable. You can't become a Pro Bowler or even All-Pro without availability and that's been priority number one for Chicago's most prized defensive asset. After all, even while a concussion can occur on quite literally any routine hit in a brutal sport such as football, both of Floyd's experiences happened while he lead with his head in running straight into Bears defensive end, Akiem Hicks.
In addition to better tackling technique, Floyd has also reportedly packed on weight, standing at a very solid 250 pounds, according to the Chicago Tribune. A stronger, more patient and controlled Floyd can only be music to the Bears' ears.
But what if in addition, the Bears attempted something still relatively groundbreaking in the NFL that could be applied to their entire defense? What if in making the effort to think outside the box, their best young defensive player in Floyd could have his long-term health as both a player and human being preserved? It's a tantalizing thought, one the Bears should only look to Georgia to see in use.
As the primary example of this defensive evolution the Bears could undertake, the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons employ a high leverage, rugby-rooted style of tackling implemented by head coach Dan Quinn. In rugby-styled tackling, defenders always lead with their shoulder, not their head. They are taught to lead with the front of their shoulder, while keeping their eyes up. To this point, the Falcons defense hasn't missed a beat.
In fact, with the amount of quality youthful talent available on the roster such as Desmond Trufant, Vic Beasley, and Keanu Neal - it's possible Atlanta's defense could make the leap to elite status in 2017 all while being unconventional.
It hasn't been the smoothest transition in retrospect for the Falcons. It took time for a defense filled with athleticism and speed to adjust and reset everything they know individually about physicality of a game many have played since they were kids. In year one, Atlanta was 22nd overall in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. In year two, the Falcons actually dropped in performance to 27th overall, but as a team, the speedy unit helped lift the franchise to it's first Super Bowl since the 1990's. This defense effectively harassed future First-Ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for three quarters in said Super Bowl, too, before eventually running out of gas in a historic collapse.
Saying all of the Falcons' success on defense and subsequent rise is rooted almost entirely in how they tackle would be misguided. But, it has fit the mold of their talent and team motto on hand as they've finally been fully ingrained into what Quinn has instilled in his roster. And it might be why they're poised to contend for the next several years as the defense effectively grows up. Quinn has lauded the transformation in principle.
"Rugby has used shoulder tackling for years and about two years ago when we were trying to take the head out of the game some people said ‘Well, it may not be as physical,’ and we said that’s absolutely not going to be the case."
Quinn in the confidence of his teachings, is of the Seattle Seahawks school of thinking as their former defensive coordinator, who also use similar teaching techniques when able to be hands-on with their players. It shows that this rugby tackling isn't an entirely new concept in the NFL. This method only needs to take firm hold in implementation in a conservative league.
Dr. Vernon Williams, director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a change to the Falcons' and Seahawks' way-of-thinking could pay tremendous dividends for Floyd and the Bears.
“They (the Falcons) are using techniques that take (the head) out of play,” Williams said. “That, we believe is going to make a big difference and is already making a big difference. For an individual were their technique may be one that puts them at a little higher risk in addition to recovering from the concussion, it makes sense to train or re-train some of those tackling techniques.”
Football cannot exist in it's current state of miseducation and lack of teaching proper safety to youth and professionals alike. Even with quality form and technique, this simultaneously beautiful and dangerous game still has red flags all over it, albeit at a lesser risk. That lesser risk is what to aim for.
For a player like Floyd and for the Bears defensive roster as a whole, it would behoove the Chicago coaching staff to think big picture. To maintain precaution while installing a new standard of defensive play for a still-rebuilding team.
It's not too late either. Head coach John Fox isn't exactly known for being a trendsetter, but wouldn't a football coach love to maximize efficiency and minimize risk? The NFL is a copycat league in this very mindset so the hope should be that the writing is on the wall.
A drop in quality of play doesn't apply here in rugby-tackling form. As long as talent is present, the Falcons have proven it's still the only aspect of team-building that matters for the Bears and any other NFL team that could attempt this for whatever reason, "radical" line of thinking. A step in this direction can only help the Bears in what should be an evolving league, not one stuck in place.
However, Floyd could still suffer another concussion regardless of circumstances and have his entire career go down the drain even if the Bears were to employ these defensive teachings. That's why the scrutiny surrounding the NFL regarding head injuries is a constant barrage until further notice.
For now, it's best to have all hands on deck and consider every possibility in Chicago.
"Everything that we can do to minimize the risk and that includes getting your head, taking your head out of the game, is going to be a good thing."
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.