Sacks are often used as the qualifying number to indicate that the Bears’ 2017 defense was in fact, good. The Bears finished with 42 sacks last year — tied for seventh with three other teams — and that’s somehow an automatic qualifier for their pass rush being okay and on the rise. Never mind their abject lack of consistent pressure on quarterbacks and overall barren depth on the edge: 42 sacks means the Bears have enough, no question.
What’s never been factored in is how little the Bears’ outside linebackers contributed to that magical number. Of all those 42 sacks, Leonard Floyd, Lamarr Houston, Pernell McPhee, Sam Acho, Willie Young, and the revered Howard Jones combined for 18.5 of them. 18.5 sacks spread across five injury-riddled and inconsistent edge players who couldn’t generate more important, sustained pressure in the most of crucial moments when needed either. That’s not ideal for a Bears defense looking to become a winning defense. That’s not ideal for any defense.
Going into the 2018 season, the Bears have overhauled most of their edge rushing group. Gone are the unreliable or aged out McPhee, Houston, and Young, and in is upside: a favorite Bears’ buzzword.
The former 49er Aaron Lynch is in Chicago to revitalize his career with upside. Sixth rounder Kylie Fitts was drafted by Chicago to have his upside tapped into. And Floyd, well Floyd is the picture of Bears upside and potential if he can ever get through a season healthy and in one piece.
For everything the Bears have bet on their offense and Matt Nagy, they’ve similarly placed a ton of faith in a shaky defense they’ve left mostly unchanged. A shaky defense that’s going to need Floyd and company to step up their game dramatically.
Length and athleticism have to finally mean something
The Bears traded up to draft Floyd at No. 9 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft to be their everyman. They didn’t want him focused on just pass rushing. They wanted to use the former Georgia standout in coverage. They wanted to shift him around their defensive front. They wanted him, in the end, to become one of the most feared versatile weapons in football. They believed the lengthy freak had that ability and were laser-focused on unlocking his potential.
After two seasons, the Bears were in a sense right about Floyd. He still can be one of the most versatile defensive players in the NFL. When he’s been on the field, Vic Fangio and company have asked him to do everything and he’s shined. Floyd just hasn’t had the run of luck or consistent enough play to warrant that he has actual staying power yet.
Regarding those flashes, Floyd has been a terror when locked in. As a rookie in 2016, he had 6.5 sacks in six games despite struggling to come into his gangly frame at 6-foot-6 and despite a concussion that interrupted the stretch. His speed and counters were too much to deal with for offensive tackles one-on-one, and in stunts.
When the Bears first asked Floyd to cover tight ends and running backs, he looked like a deer learning how to walk against the Cowboys’ Jason Witten in a Sunday Night Football game. After an off-season where he refined his craft, the Bears could trust Floyd in coverage more last year because he was no longer that awkward deer. He actually was confident in his technique and movements — a major key to success. The ability to stick with quicker players was already there.
The fact of the matter is that every time the Bears have asked Floyd to improve, or even when he’s had to take another step, he has. The only problem is that he hasn’t had enough time on the field to display his improvements and work over. Two concussions and a knee injury have robbed Floyd of the strides he’s made. The most disastrous and unfortunate circumstances you can have in football too. Every time Floyd has taken a step forward it’s as if he’s taken two steps back.
2018 is the first season where Floyd is the unquestioned lead Bears’ edge rusher. His first round fifth-year option decision comes next May as well, and that will certainly heavily hinge on his performance this year. There’s a lot on his plate to succeed, not all of it in his control. If the cards fall in his favor this fall, there’s no reason to believe Floyd isn’t the stellar terror the Bears originally thought they were getting three drafts ago.
As a qualifier, Sam Acho is one of the most respected veterans in the Bears’ locker room. He’s an outstanding voice for younger players and is a boon to the community as a role model.
In football terms, any scenario where Acho is starting for the Bears outside of a depth capacity, their pass rush isn’t going to be very good, simply because the good soldier in Acho has limits. Which is why Bears’ defensive coaches have to be hoping one of the newcomers to this edge group in Lynch or Fitts seizes the day and puts Acho in a more apt place for the defense. If neither of these two can win a starting job opposite Floyd for whatever reason, this defense will have more issues than feared.
A forgotten man in the NFL landscape, Lynch was once one of the NFL’s more underrated pass rushers. 12.5 sacks in his first two years with San Francisco in 2014 and 2015 — one of them while coached Fangio — helped feature Lynch with one of the most useful defensive skill sets.
Since then, a variety of injuries and motivation issues have held the 25-year-old to just three starts and appearances in the last two seasons. The 49ers were moving in a new direction, and they decided they didn’t have any room left for Lynch on their bandwagon. A player stuck in no man’s land that would settle for any redemptive opportunities, no matter the term. Opportunity knocked with the Bears and the coach in Fangio that helped Lynch get started in the NFL.
The talent and ability Lynch has is undoubtedly still present and could help the Bears out of this current pass rush jam they’re in. The question is whether he’ll be able to stay on the field enough for that vision to come to fruition. Of each of the Bears’ outside linebackers behind Floyd, Lynch has to soon to be the starting favorite because of his familiarity with Fangio’s defense and his experience. His body will have to permit him to maximize his shot once he gets it.
It’s funny that the Bears added Lynch and Fitts in the same off-season because the two are mirror images of each other in their recent playing careers.
Whereas Lynch has barely played since 2015, Fitts also struggled to stay on the field in college at Utah after a sharp seven sack 2015 season. It’s a stretch to say without concrete evidence, but perhaps the Bears could be looking for this pair to rub off on each other and give each other lessons. Lynch, the established veteran looking for new footing. And Fitts, the wide-eyed rookie, also looking for new footing.
When the Bears drafted Fitts, I said I thought he could be one of the defensive steals of the draft relative to his late draft position. How he played in the time he actually did feature in college meant he was worth the Day 3 flier Chicago took on him. I still think that Fitts has potential for the Bears to cash in on a great lottery ticket, and this camp is going to be that initial taste.
Much like with every Bears outside linebacker sans Acho, Fitts has injury issues to work past and a chip on his shoulder to prove his critics wrong. If that chip motivates him enough to become the 2015 version of Fitts at this level, the Bears can then be legitimately ecstatic about the upside of their pass rush. If Fitts thrives, watch him bat down passes at the line of scrimmage and chase down quarterbacks like a madman with his drive. You’ll understand the Bears’ gamble better once you’ll see it.
More questions isn’t necessarily bad
It’s understandable to fear the unknown and change. With change comes new experiences, and there’s always the risk that those experiences are negative, which is why we fear change. We also fear change because we get comfortable, and anything outside of our comfort zone is seen as negative. But there is nothing as stable in football as change. Change is needed for accomplishments, and change is needed to stay on your toes.
Much has been made of the Bears losing most of their edge rush depth chart from the last three years with McPhee, Young, and Houston out of the picture. Not enough has been said how little those three veterans offered the Bears towards the end of their tenures and how the team had to move forward and at least take a chance on other upside. Going into another season with ineffective, older players taking away snaps from potentially more talented guys is the exact opposite of an ideal way to find an answer for the Bears on the edge.
Yes, Chicago didn’t address this position this off-season in the most favorable of circumstances. Premium assets weren’t used to overhaul this group surrounding Floyd, that’s not in question. At the minimum, we don’t know what to expect from the Bears’ new, younger faces, and that’s better than nothing.
Floyd, Lynch and Fitts might not make it through the 2018 season. Acho could be one of the last men standing again. It’s impossible to ignore this possibility. But in that context there will have been a clear sign the Bears knew they couldn’t stay stagnant on the edge. They knew they had to adapt with unknown and unproven players. Trying to get the absolute best out of these inherent question marks is better than going with a previous failure of a status quo.
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.