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It’s now or never for Leonard Floyd

The summer hype has returned for Floyd. For once, he has to live up to expectations.

Denver Broncos v Chicago Bears
It’s now or never for the Bears’ young pass rusher.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bears traded up to select Leonard Floyd at No. 9 overall because they needed a pass rusher to build around. They wanted a difference maker that could become the centerpiece of their budding defense as he evolved into a force that couldn’t be ignored. Being by far the highest edge pass rusher Chicago has selected in the four drafts since general manager Ryan Pace was hired, Floyd has always had the weight of the Bears’ defensive hopes on his shoulders.

To his credit, Floyd has sometimes shown that original insight into him was correct. The flashes of dominance have been there: 6.5 sacks in a 2016 midseason rookie stretch are a testament to what he’s capable of on the field when locked in. No one arguably has more responsibilities in Chicago’s defense. The Bears count on Floyd to rush the passer, drop back into coverage with his oft-praised athleticism, and be an-all round dynamo setting the edge against rushing attacks. When he plays, he’s lived up to these parameters more often than not.

Given the constraints of their current edge rush group, Floyd is easily the Bears’ defense’s most important player that has to take a dramatic step forward in 2018. Once the regular season has concluded, if he’s not firmly in their best defensive player conversation alongside Akiem Hicks, the consequences for the Bears will take a long time to recuperate from.

Yet, despite oodles of potential, it’s been two years and Floyd hasn’t fully cleared the bar the Bears originally set. The flashes count, but they have to show up more consistently. A combination of health issues leading him to miss 10 total games thus far, as well as a tendency to get worked one-on-one by better offensive tackles around the NFL are the main culprits in what’s held him back.

With the decision on his fifth-year option of his first round contract looming next May, it’s high time for Floyd to show his ultimate value. That inherently doesn’t mean it’s too late for him to grab a firm hold of the reins.

The veteran leader

This stepping up sentiment reverberates especially because for the first time Floyd is the clear leader of his position. In 2016 and 2017, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, and Pernell McPhee were around to mentor their young teammate in Chicago. While Floyd undoubtedly had the most natural ability, he had a lot to glean from veterans such as Young that had been there and done that.

“What he brings to the table is just, I get a sense of joy when I see how far he’s come from now to then,” said Young during last year’s Bears training camp of his young mentee. “I’m just enjoying every day watching him grow. Watching how he’s able to attack and be a student of the game.”

Going into Year 3, the now released Young, McPhee, and Houston no longer get to watch over Floyd. The mentioned student of the game should be seasoned enough to handle himself on his own, and teach others at the same time. With an up-and-down Aaron Lynch, journeyman role player Sam Acho, and unproven Kylie Fitts: Floyd is finally the distinct alpha dog. Just like the Bears had always planned for.

High hopes everywhere

Examine the national conversation, and most expect sizable growth out of the Bears’ 25-year-old budding star. NFL Network’s Gil Brandt had Floyd as his primary future Pro Bowler for Chicago earlier this week. Bleacher Report’s Maurice Moton pencilled in Floyd as his breakout Bears player in May. Yours truly also mandated that Floyd prove his ultimate worth in the fall earlier this month.

The quality opposite Floyd at the other starting outside linebacker spot, and the depth behind him, won’t be seen as reasonable excuses for failure. If he truly is the player the Bears believed in and hoped for two years ago, he’ll thrive regardless of other circumstances. If top tier elite edge rushers like the RaidersKhalil Mack and Von Miller (though Miller now has Bradley Chubb) can thrive without consistent partners, so should Floyd.

And that’s not to say Floyd will ever consistently be individually on par with those two perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Those are two generational talents in Oakland and Denver that are special in their own right. It’s more that Floyd has a similar extremely small margin for error with the brunt of the Bears’ pass rush on the edge to carry on his own. When taking into account that he’ll already be 26-years-old (near a physical peak) by the time Chicago plays the Packers in Week 1, if Floyd doesn’t dominate and show off regular stability this year: he likely never will.

The definition of success

Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
Floyd is firmly the Bears’ lead pass rusher now, and has to embrace his role.
Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

So what is a successful year for Floyd in 2018, otherwise known as the unofficial put up or shut season of his young career? Is it as simple as baby steps like him staying healthy and taking it from there? Or does he have to be an elite player beyond measure?

The best answer is ... yes, and that both of those questions are connected.

If we assume Floyd doesn’t miss at least four games in 2018, and plays in a minimum of 14 to 15, the rest should take care of itself. The production will match up over the largest possible sample size because he’s receiving every opportunity to play well and boost his numbers. Floyd is still recovering from his freak knee injury suffered last November against the Lions and while he should be fully cleared for training camp in July, it’s imperative something like that happens never again.

Quality expected production from Floyd with this perspective is double digit sacks and at least 20 quarterback pressures. Anything less is an objective disappointment given his gifts.

Yes, the Bears use Floyd as the Swiss Army Knife of their defense. But his role primarily boils down to disrupting quarterback’s passing rhythm and bringing them down to the ground first and foremost. A minimum of 15 tackles for loss and four to five passes defensed in pass coverage is also necessary, displaying his versatility as a run defender and drop back player. It’s ancillary in comparison to Floyd’s pass rush critiques, but still important.

Numbers and statistical lines aside, 2018 needs to be the year where Floyd full-on embraces being a face of the franchise. As long as Mitchell Trubisky is the quarterback and takes the steps the Bears expect out of him, he’ll always be at the forefront. Every football team has multiple primary leadership gaps to fill, though. It’s one of these gaps that Floyd has to step into seamlessly if he’s elite and someone to build around for the future.

What is Floyd’s brand of leadership?

It’s the old-fashioned “lead by example” model because he’s in no way, shape, or form, the boisterous type. His play will always do all his speaking for him. The template Floyd sets for everyone else on both sides of the ball and how he carries himself is his platform to not only take the next step individually, but best assist the Bears in becoming a contender.

2018 is a crucial breakthrough season for a lot of people in the Bears’ organization. There’s young talent across the board eager to showcase their worth for a franchise on the upswing. No one is under a bigger microscope with more to prove than their top pass rusher in Floyd.

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.