In three years, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has spent a draft pick on exactly one outside linebacker: No. 9 overall in 2016 on Leonard Floyd. That’s of 20 possible opportunities since 2015. One draft pick on what is inarguably an NFL defense’s most important position. One investment in youthful talent instead of a reliance on stretched thin veterans. That is neglect of the highest order.
In that time frame, the Bears have intermittently counted on such veterans as Pernell McPhee (unhealthy and unreliable), Lamarr Houston (reliable when available, but not always healthy), and Willie Young: of whom they eventually overworked over a four-year span because of a lack of depth. That led to his release in February despite being the good soldier who fills any role asked of him every NFL team covets.
There is Floyd in the fold, who has unfortunately missed 10 games in two seasons. He’s the Bears’ future at outside linebacker, but saying that Chicago can 100 percent count on him right now is misguided until proven otherwise.
The Bears couldn’t address their dire need on the edge in free agency because great pass rushers never hit the open market due to their immense value. That means their foundational undertaking must come in this year’s draft. Former 49ers pass rusher Aaron Lynch is a nice story but not the answer.
If this Bears team is going to have an elite defense, they can’t keep procrastinating to address their pass rush. Attempting to put together a patchwork outside linebacker group hasn’t worked before, and will continue to be a thorn in the side of an otherwise talented unit. Whether it be with one of their top picks (or more), it’s time to take multiple stabs at this roster hole.
Examining the Bears’ best options and overall defensive edge situation prior to the 2018 NFL Draft.
Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State
2017 statistics: 72 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, two passes defensed, one forced fumble
Height and weight: 6-foot-4, 269 pounds
Chubb is the premier edge talent in this year’s draft. He’s someone that steps in for any team and produces close to double digit sacks and quarterback pressures. While not a transcendent player, he’s close to being as sure of a thing as any prospect available.
You know what you’re going to get with Chubb. He’s going to beat offensive tackles up and down the field. He’s going to use his hands, power, and technique to do so. No other edge player in this draft can cross a tackle’s face, use their leverage against them, and drive them back in the way that Chubb does. Add in the fact that he’s going to maintain contain as a run defender that has to be double teamed because of his knack for penetration, and he’s an evaluator’s dream.
In a weak overall edge class at the top, that pushes Chubb’s value up with NFL teams such as the Bears coveting a player of his services. In any other draft, he’s still a top-10 to top-15 pick and is on par with other previously drafted powers such as the Eagles’ Derek Barnett or the 49ers’ Solomon Thomas. Chubb is a case study of positional value that rises above classes.
Is there concern about how Chubb can drop back into coverage? Yes, which is why he most optimally fits in a 4-3 front as a pure defensive end with his hand in the ground. He’s not a terrific athlete, which is what can hold him back.
Is that enough to pass on Chubb if you run a base 3-4 defense? Not in the slightest. Stellar pass rushers don’t grow on trees. In the case of the Bears, they’re not always in a true 3-4 either in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme. Fortunately, Floyd would be the one dropping back much more often given his responsibilities and athleticism anyway.
Ultimately, Chubb is a plug and play guy that is the ideal partner for Floyd from a power to speed contrast.
From an underrated stand point, Chubb knows how to use gamesmanship to get into the heads of the men he’ll be employed to regularly bury in quarterbacks. Do things like take the towel across their hips, and you’ve done more than disrupt their timing or sack them. You’ve won the mental battle, as Chubb can attest to.
“The only thing I told them was it was something I did to get in people’s heads. That’s how I play the game,” Chubb said to Sports Illustrated. “I always do stuff. If it’s the smallest advantage, I’m going to do it. I did it every game pretty much and some quarterbacks let it go. But Clemson caught it and he (Kelly Bryant) was bothered by it. He kept trying to get his towel back. I saw it bothered him so I kept doing it and trying to get him out of his game and got caught on the skycam.”
Only players most comfortable with their abilities seize the opportunity to mess with the opposition as much as the rules allow. “Legally” playing with an NFL quarterback’s sensibilities is an experience Chubb is prepared for.
As a currently projected top-five pick, Chubb isn’t likely to fall to the Bears. They’ll have their draft representative sprint a card to the podium if he is available at No. 8 overall. Not that it’ll bother him. He’s prepared to bully offensive linemen wherever he ends up.
“Things happen,” Chubb also said at his Pro Day. “I can’t control what teams gonna do. If I fall, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter to me.”
On the edge of glory
Bears’ need: High.
Floyd is a good player on one side, but Lynch and Sam Acho are nothing more than No. 3 and No. 4 options as band-aids. Cleaning house with McPhee, Young, and Houston should signify a plan to fortify this position. If the current group is pressed, the Bears’ defense is in trouble. They need more than a starter. They need a star.
Current roster: Leonard Floyd (two years left on rookie contract at a $4.304 million average annual value). Aaron Lynch (one year contract at a $4 million average annual value with playing incentives). Sam Acho (signed a two-year contract at a $2.745 average annual value according to playing incentives). Isaiah Irving (one year remaining on contract at a $555,000 average annual value).
Top edge players available
1. Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State: Chubb made 128 tackles, 44 tackles for loss, and 20 sacks in his last two amateur seasons. That’s prolific production. He’s been compared to Chris Long and McPhee for his solid, if sometimes, unspectacular ceiling. Without a hint of projection, some believe he’s the best player in the entire draft.
2. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College: The picturesque pure pass rusher in terms of speed and power in this draft, Landry is a seamless fit in the first round for many teams. That’s because memory recalls of a dominant 2016 season where he had 50 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, and 16.5 sacks. A disappointing 2017 season was significantly hampered by injuries. After a terrific outing at the Combine that proved he’s a dynamic athlete, Landry will be the outside linebacker-type many covet.
3. Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA: First coming onto the draft scene in January during the Senior Bowl, there was concern as to what Davenport actually brought to the table aside from being a highly touted small school prospect. The more you watch him though, the more you see a technically sound player that has a penchant for the timely big play. No, Davenport didn’t dominate in college against lesser competition. But with coaching and patience on the edge, he can project to be consistently fear-inspiring in the NFL.
4. Lorenzo Carter, OLB, Georgia: In terms of a versatile outside linebacker, the four-year player at Georgia in Carter is unparalleled in this draft class. He can drop back and cover tight ends and running backs. He can tackle and maintain contain on the defensive edge. And of course, he can rush the passer. Carter is often compared to his former college teammate in Floyd for play style. The problem is that Floyd was much more complete as a prospect coming out despite weight issues. Carter has to land in a situation that lets him come along slowly to maximize his strengths.
5. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State: The adversity that Sweat has gone through to get to the brink of an NFL career is remarkable. There’s enduring a knee injury that almost had him lose his leg in high school. Then there’s being completely misused in college, sometimes lining up as a four-technique despite his ability to bend a quarterback’s pocket off the edge. The injuries or clueless coaches that held him back are forgotten now. Sweat is a pass rushing freak of an athlete that should terrorize offenses from the get-go.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.