Lamarr Houston

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.

Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

The first decisions general manager Ryan Pace will have to make later this month are on which of his own players from the 2017 season he’d like to try to retain. There are 10 key names here to focus on before negotiations with other teams can begin March 12 and contracts can be finalized March 14.

Dontrelle Inman

Inman brought some much-needed length to the Bears’ receiving corps when Pace traded for him in October, and he caught 13 of 22 targets for 195 yards in his first three games in Chicago. But Inman’s production tailed off, with Mitchell Trubisky targeting him only eight times (with five receptions) for 45 yards and a touchdown in his next four games before Inman finished the season with five catches on 10 targets for 94 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. 

Former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said in December that Inman’s decrease in usage was because teams quickly figured out that they could take him out of the gameplan by training their focus on him.

“Coverage,” Loggains said. “That’s as simple as it is. Nothing that he’s done or we’re trying to take him out of progressions.”

That’s not surprising — Inman isn’t a No. 1 receiver who can beat that kind of coverage — but the 6-foot-3 former Charger could be an option to return, and would be better suited as a rotational guy or someone who isn’t relied on to be the top target for Trubisky. 

Kendall Wright

The 28-year-old Wright led the Bears in targets (91) receptions (59) and yards (614) and played in all 16 games for the first time since his breakout 2013 season. But the Bears preferred to try to limit Wright’s snaps, as Loggains explained in October: “When he gets to play in that 25-35 range and he’s fresh and can bring the energy and juice,” he said. 

The Bears’ plan for Wright when they signed him a year ago was to have him be a complementary piece to their three top outside targets (Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton). With Meredith and White suffering season-ending injuries by the end of Week 1 and Wheaton proving to be a bust, the Bears had to rely on Wright more than they would’ve liked. 

As long as the Bears can better fill out the rest of their receiver depth chart, Wright not only would be a prime candidate to return, but someone who could be a productive part of the 2018 offense. 

Mark Sanchez

Sanchez wasn’t active for any of the Bears’ 16 games but still made a positive impact on the team in 2017. Specifically, the 31-year-old had a strong relationship with Trubisky, and the Bears could aim to keep that relationship intact. 

“He did a good job this year, all the things we value with him, his veteran leadership and his experiences,” Pace said, adding that Sanchez has expressed a desire to return to the Bears. “He’s a free agent, those are all evaluations that are ongoing.”

The bigger question is if the team believes Sanchez could be a viable backup after not dressing for a single game in 2017. There are other options on the free agent market, but it’s worth noting that one of those guys — Chase Daniel, who has connections to Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy — also didn’t throw a pass in 2017 (and has only thrown three since the end of the 2014 season).

Tom Compton

Compton was a steady presence as a reserve when he played and has the flexibility to play both guard and tackle. If Eric Kush is healthy after tearing his ACL last August, Compton could be a candidate to return as a swing tackle, or the Bears could look for someone on the free agent market. Worth noting is Compton’s relatively frequent presence on the Bears’ weekly injury reports last season. 

Zach Miller

Miller, unfortunately, doesn’t seem likely to play football again after dislocating his knee and tearing his popliteal artery against the New Orleans Saints, which nearly led to his leg being amputated. If Miller’s playing career is over, it’s a shame given he was one of the most well-liked players to pass through Halas Hall in recent memory. 

Kyle Fuller

If Pace were to use the franchise tag on Fuller, it likely would be a bridge to a long-term contract extension instead of using it to keep the cornerback under control for another year at $15 million. Fuller was one of four cornerbacks to break up 20 or more passes in 2017, but his inconsistent play in 2014 and 2015, as well as the injury that cost him the entire 2016 season, does present some risk. 

The Bears could opt to not use the franchise tag on Fuller and let him hit the open market and still have the confidence that they could re-sign him. To start: This year’s free agent cornerback class is headlined by Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland and E.J. Gaines. Fuller would be entering a deep pool of cornerbacks, which Pace pointed out on Tuesday. 

“I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position, so that’s beneficial to us,” Pace said. 

It could be beneficial to the Bears specifically with Fuller, as a super-rich contract might not materialize if those go to Johnson and Butler. The Bears should be able to pitch Fuller, too, on the consistency in their defensive coaching staff — specifically, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell — as being the best option for the former first-round pick to continue to develop as a player. 

But too, if the Bears were lose Fuller to free agency, they could replace him with a couple of free agents or a free agent and a high draft pick. As Pace said, the depth of the cornerbacks available over the next two months is beneficial to the Bears. 

Prince Amukamara

Amukamara was a solid enough cornerback at times, but he didn’t record an interception and was penalized seven times for 99 yards, the most of any Bears defensive player in 2017 (Fuller, for comparison, was penalized three times for 21 yards). Amukamara turns 29 in June and is coming off back-to-back one-year deals. Would he take another one? And would the Bears want him back regardless? Again, the deep free agent market/draft pool could help the Bears find an upgrade over Amukamara. 

If the Bears do keep Amukamara, they very well could still draft a cornerback with an early round pick in April. 

Christian Jones

Jones totaled 57 tackles with two pass break-ups, one forced fumble and two sacks while playing well as a reserve next to Danny Trevathan. He’s played three years in Vic Fangio’s defense and seems like a likely candidate to return. 

Mitch Unrein

Unrein was not only a favorite of former coach John Fox but is a favorite of defense line coach Jay Rodgers. Re-signing him and then having 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard compete with him for playing time could be a productive path. 

One thing Rodgers liked about Unrein last year was that helped the rest of the defensive line — standouts Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks — play faster. 

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “Very versatile player, he’s played every position on the front during the course of his career. He knows me, he knows what the expectation is, he knows how to communicate, he knows what’s coming, run game, pass game, he puts it all together. And when he’s out there on the field with those guys, he allows those guys to play fast. And if they know what’s coming their way, then they can play even faster. And I think his demand in the room of knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it, raises the elevation of the other guys in the room. And he holds them accountable to knowing their stuff.” 

Lamarr Houston

The Bears parted ways with Houston before the 2017 season, then brought him back in late November after injuries sapped the team’s depth at outside linebacker. Houston notched four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears, and without many more productive edge rushers who could potentially hit the free market, Houston could be a candidate to return to help fill out the team’s pass rushing depth. 

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.