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.