It took the Bears six rounds to add a young edge rusher to their defense in the 2018 NFL Draft. To finally add someone with youth that has the ability to strive for more. Chicago couldn’t afford to completely neglect their most dire defensive need. Waiting until Day 3 of the draft wasn’t ideal from that perspective, but if you’re going to make an investment, make sure it isn’t a throwaway. Be positive it’s someone that can grow with your program, regardless of draft status.
That’s where former Utah standout turned Bears’ project Kylie Fitts comes in. The 6-foot-4 and 260 pound outside linebacker missed most of the last two seasons in college due to injuries. That missed time overshadowed what looked like a star player coming into his own in 2015. That’s when Fitts, after transferring to Utah over from UCLA, had 40 tackles, seven sacks, and seven tackles for loss to go with a high 10 passes defensed.
Fitts was everywhere the Utes’ defense asked him to be and more in said college action. Sometimes health and fortune isn’t in line and agreeable with potential, though. Over the course of the next two seasons, Fitts never quite reached the same level, and in turn, dropped in the draft when it was time to transition to the big leagues.
Fortunately, football often offers second and third chances. What happened in college won’t define Fitts’ career in the NFL unless he allows it to. Provided he continues to plug away at his craft with the Bears, things will have a way of taking care of themselves. That’s the mindset Fitts is adopting.
“I don’t think about that at all. It’s kind of all in the past. I think I got all my injuries kind of over with,” said Fitts during Bears’ rookie minicamp last weekend. I think it was just a run of bad luck and it’s over now. I’m healthy, feeling good now, and I’m banking on remaining healthy and playing good.”
In football, you make your own luck and have the power to reshape your destiny. That’s exactly what Fitts is prepared to do. The past was a learning experience, not a defining factor.
I spoke with Shane Roberts, managing editor of SB Nation’s Utah website, Block U, to get a sense of what Fitts has to accomplish to become an edge rushing force again.
Fitts has been characterized as a late round steal for the Bears because of where he was pre-injury. Why is that, and what would you consider his strengths as an edge player?
Shane Roberts: His speed and use of hands are excellent. Tackles had a hard time getting their hands on Fitts, and when they did, he was able to fight them off. He also has a top notch motor. That’s reflected in him never stopping or giving up on a play. His pursuit from the backside of a formation is as good as any edge player drafted ahead of him, if not better.
Before injuries, Fitts looked like a rising top defensive player in college football. How much did the injuries rob him of his ability? Would he have been available where the Bears drafted him with improved health? Are these injuries something to be concerned about, or freak occurrences?
SR: I don’t know if they robbed Fitts of his talent, but they certainly snatched away what should’ve been a promising career at Utah. His 2016 season was ended early, and he never fully recovered in time from a high ankle sprain last year. It’s a shame because Fitts’ lone full season after transferring saw him dominate the Pac-12 conference.
I don’t think Fitts would have been available in the sixth round if he didn’t have this injury misfortune. However, since he’s considered a “tweener” in size to some, I would’ve seen him as a more of a fourth round pick. Overall, I wouldn’t be worried about the injuries. The Lisfranc injury Fitts suffered in 2015 is more serious, but his high ankle sprain was just circumstance while getting rolled up on. Unlucky flukes through and through.
In some aspects, Fitts actually tests out better than the Titans’ Harold Landry, despite the draft slot difference. That’s not something you’d think. What do you consider to be a strength of his people otherwise wouldn’t notice?
SR: He’s elite at tipping passes. If Fitts is successfully blocked, he knows how to time his jumps and amply get his hands in the air better than any defensive lineman that’s played in college football the last three years. That’s evidenced in those 10 defensed passes. Guys up front aren’t supposed to be able to effect balls in the air in that manner, yet there he is, frustrating quarterbacks to no end. Much like Fitts’ pursuit, the name of the game is never quitting.
The Bears need a young starter opposite Leonard Floyd. How do you think Fitts’ game “Fitts” (not sorry) in the NFL to do that? Where would you project his ceiling with the proper development in Chicago?
SR: That’s difficult to say, because it depends on how Fitts can overcome his size issues. Is he a defensive end straight up? Or are the Bears using him full time at outside linebacker, and having him drop back? That determines everything for his projection. He’s likely better suited as an outside linebacker, but he has to prove he’s agile enough to handle those responsibilities.
Fitts has a ton of physical tools that translate well to the NFL, namely speed, explosiveness, and instinctive awareness. The question is whether he can handle professional offensive lines. We don’t have the benefit of knowledge to determine that yet.
What is one memory that sticks out to you about Fitts during his time at Utah?
SR: Go watch the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl against BYU. Fitts was an out-of-control baller in that game, especially in the first quarter. His play was summed up when a tackle edged Fitts out of the play, with BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum beginning to scramble. Fitts chased Mangum down along the sideline and stripped him of the ball. That turnover led to an early score that helped cement the eventual victory for Utah. It only happened through Fitts’ dogged tenacity to make something out of nothing.
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.