Free agent focus: A few names Bears should consider to fill out their pass rush

Free agent focus: A few names Bears should consider to fill out their pass rush

While the Bears have pressing needs at wide receiver and cornerback, perhaps no unit needs more work than outside linebacker/edge rusher. The Bears cut veterans Pernell McPhee and Willie Young in February and Leonard Floyd is coming off a season-ending knee injury, making for plenty of question marks for this group heading into the 2018 league year. 

If every good defense needs three guys who can disrupt the quarterback, the Bears have one in Akiem Hicks, who had 8 1/2 sacks and 19 hurries last year. But what do the Bears have in Floyd?

That’s the biggest question for this group to answer in 2018. Floyd has missed 10 games over his two years with the Bears, and when he’s been on the field, he’s averaged about one sack every two games. That’s good production, but as Vic Fangio said in January, the Bears’ defense needs its good players to be great. 

Getting Floyd’s knee healthy is step one, and Pace said at the NFL Combine that he expects the 2016 first-round pick to be ready for the Bears’ offseason program this spring. 

“He's added strength,” Pace said. “He's added size which I think is going to help as he matures as an NFL player. His rehab couldn't be going better, just the way he's attacking that. We feel really good about the progress he's making.”

If healthy, Floyd has the talent to put together a double-digit-sack season. And that’s the Bears’ best shot at having an elite, or at least good, pass rusher in 2018 to pair with an effective Hicks. This year’s free agent class of edge rushers isn’t particularly strong, which isn’t exactly surprising -- teams rarely are willing to risk losing guys who can disrupt the quarterback. 

There still are a few names out there the Bears will have to consider to fill out their pass rush:

Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta Falcons

Clayborn had 9 1/2 sacks last year (six -- six! -- of which came in one game) but he’s played every one of his 81 games in the NFL as a 4-3 defensive end. At 6-foot-3, 281 pounds, he’s big enough to play as a defensive end in Fangio’s 3-4 base, but the guy he’d be replacing there -- Mitch Unrein -- only played about 40 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps last year. He could slim down a touch and play outside linebacker, and Fangio’s defense is flexible enough to fit him, but convincing Clayborn to leave the scheme he knows for one he doesn’t may be difficult. 

Aaron Lynch, San Francisco 49ers

Lynch is only 25 and has four seasons of NFL experience under his belt, but missed 18 games and totaled just three sacks the last two years. When healthy, Lynch was effective, and he had six sacks his rookie year in Fangio’s San Francisco 49ers defense. Signing him would require some projection on health, and he’d be best-used as a rotational piece, but his age and experience with Fangio do make him an intriguing name to watch. 

Connor Barwin, Los Angeles Rams

Barwin is four years removed from racking up 14 1/2 sacks and turns 32 in October, but he’s still able to handle about 70-90 percent of a team’s defensive snaps and totaled five sacks last year with the Los Angeles Rams. He’s a scheme fit and would replace some of the veteran experience lost with the releases of McPhee and Young. Pairing a veteran like him with a higher-upside guy like Lynch could be the Bears’ best bet to address this position in free agency. 

Junior Galette, Washington Redskins

Galette racked up 22 sacks between 2013 and 2014 with the New Orleans Saints, but derailed his career after he was accused of domestic violence and appeared to hit a woman with a belt on a 2013 video of a brawl on South Beach. He was a poor locker room presence with the Saints too, and after New Orleans jettisonned him four months after signing him to a four-year, $41.25 million extension, he suffered a number of injuries that kept him off the field until last year. Galette played in all 16 games for Washington last year but only totaled three sacks. Pace overlapping with him in New Orleans could work against him being a buy-low option for the Bears. 

Lamarr Houston, Chicago Bears

The Bears released Houston after he suffered an injury in their fourth preseason game, but brought him back for the final month of the 2017 season after the Houston Texans waived him. Houston took advantage of his opportunity and totaling four sacks in five games. 

“He’s been able to retain a lot of the stuff that we do from when he left here after training camp, so that’s been good,” Fangio said in December. “He’s been playing about like we would expect.”

The Bears could opt to retain Houston as a veteran rotational guy, but he’s missed 28 games in the last four seasons and turns 31 in June, so he’d likely be one of the less expensive options here.

Bears' roster moves create a looming roster hurdle for Kevin White


Bears' roster moves create a looming roster hurdle for Kevin White

Questions have been hanging over Kevin White ever since GM Ryan Pace opted to invest the No. 7 pick of the 2015 draft on a wide receiver with one outstanding college season on his resume. Given Pace’s strike for a quarterback with a roughly similar body of work last draft, this may qualify as a Pace “strategy,” but that’s for another discussion closer to the draft.

But in the wake of signings at wide receiver by Pace and the Bears over the start-up days of free agency, a new and perhaps darker cloud is forming over White. This is beyond the obvious ones visited on the young man by his succession of three season-ending injuries, and by a nagging belief in some quarters that White is a bust irrespective of the injuries.

The point is not that White will never amount to anything in the NFL. Marc Colombo came back from a pair of horrendous leg injuries to have a career as a solid NFL tackle, albeit with the Dallas Cowboys, not the Bears.

The problem facing White now, assuming he comes back able to stay healthy in a competition with Cameron Meredith for the spot opposite Allen Robinson, is whether there is reasonably going to be a roster spot the Bears can use for him.

This would be on top of whether Pace and the organization could bring themselves to cut ties with a quality individual in a move that would amount to admitting a failure in what was supposed to be a defining initial top-10 pick by a regime committed to building through the draft.

White is still under his rookie contract with its $2.7 million guaranteed for this season, so there is little reason to simply give up on him, even assuming an offset if White then signs on somewhere else.

But Robinson and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel account for two of the starting three wideout spots. For the other wide receiver job, Meredith, also coming off season-ending knee surgery, rates an early edge on White based on Meredith’s 66-catch 2016 season.

If White does not start, he then becomes a backup, and backups are expected to contribute on special teams. It’s what has kept Josh Bellamy in the NFL, and what new Bears tight end Trey Burton points to as his ticket to making it through his first years with Philadelphia.

White doesn’t cover kicks, doesn’t return them, doesn’t block them. The Bears have typically expected special-teams participation from their No. 4-5 receivers, although the fact that Meredith and Robinson are coming off knee injuries, and chances that the Bears will keep six wide receivers in the West Coast offense of Matt Nagy, all could tilt a decision in favor of White simply as insurance/depth, even with his own injury history.

It is difficult not to have a spot of rooting-interest in White, a young guy trying so hard to get a career dream off the ground. It’s just also difficult to see a clear fit in the new Bears world that began forming in earnest in the past several days.

Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?


Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?

Not all that long ago, back in the seemingly promising Dave Wannstedt days, something of an annual narrative began around the Bears. All too frequently since then it has been the refrain of more offseasons than not, including last year’s. And if there is a cause for very, very sobering realism in the wake of the heady wave of free-agency signings in the first days of the new league year, it lies in what has so often transpired to put the lie to that optimism.

The mantra then, and now, has been various iterations of, “If these three (or four, or six, or 12) things work out, the Bears are gonna be good this year.” Because the reality is that all those what-ifs seldom, if ever, all come to pass, whether because of injury, mis-evaluated abilities or whatever.

Look no further than this time last offseason, just considering the offense:

If Kevin White can come back from (another) injury, if Markus Wheaton flashes his Pittsburgh speed, if Dion Sims takes that next step from a promising Miami stint, if Kyle Long is back from his lower-body issues, if Cameron Meredith comes close to those 66 catches again, if Mike Glennon has the upside that led the GM to guarantee him $18.5 million, and hey, Victor Cruz, too, if… and so on.

And exactly zero of those “if’s” came to pass, with the result that John Fox and Dowell Loggains became idiots.

The point is not to a picker of nit or sayer of nay. But the fact is that a lot of the offseason moves and player development ALL need to come down in the plus-column for the Bears to be even as good as they were back in, say, 2015, when the offense had Martellus Bennett at tight end, Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver, Eddie Royal coming in at slot receiver (with 37 catches in an injury-shortened season), Kyle Long at his Pro-Bowl best, and Jay Cutler about to have the best full season of his career. And a new (proven) head coach and defensive coordinator, and an offensive coordinator with head-coaching talent.

All those things “worked” for a team that would wobble to a 6-10 year.

Now consider 2018:

The current top two wide receivers are both – both – coming off season-ending ACL injuries;

The incoming slot receiver has never had a season as reception-productive as the one (Kendall Wright) he is replacing (59) or as many as Royal had in just nine 2015 games (37);

The new tight end has never been a starter and has fewer career catches (63) than Bennett averaged (69) in three supremely disappointing Bears seasons;

The best offensive lineman (Long) is coming off missing essentially half of each of the past two seasons with injuries, and the co-best (Sitton) is gone from an offensive line that was middle of the pack last year and has high hopes for two linemen (Hroniss Grasu, Eric Kush) who’ve been largely backups, and a third (Jordan Morgan) who missed his rookie season with an injury;

And the quarterback (Trubisky) upon whom the franchise rests, who needs to overcome any so-called sophomore jinx and improve from a rookie level (77.8 passer rating) that was barely better than Cutler’s worst NFL season (76.8).

All of which sounds negative, but it really isn’t, just a perspective. Offseasons are about hope, but realism isn’t all bad, either.