Willie Young

Bears losing DE Willie Young changes the math on need at pass rusher

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USA TODAY

Bears losing DE Willie Young changes the math on need at pass rusher

INDIANAPOLIS – It might pass almost unnoticed amid other Bears news coming out of day one at the annual NFL Scouting Combine, things like the plan for scheduling the release quarterback Mike Glennon and the latest takes on the growing (hopefully) synergy between GM Ryan Pace and new coach Matt Nagy.

But the Bears parted ways with defensive end (“Don’t call me a linebacker!”) Willie Young on Wednesday after a source said the two sides couldn’t agree on a reduced contract for the lineman who’d led the Bears in sacks over the past four years (26) and had emerged as one of the emotional leaders of a team he believed was on the rise. He and defensive end Akiem Hicks had dinner together with Leonard Floyd every week, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that from that group came basically the core of the Bears’ pass rush.

The painful (literally) fact is that the Bears finished the 2018 season with three (Young, Floyd, Pernell McPhee) of their top four pass-rush linebackers on injured reserve and the fourth – Lamarr Houston – cut in preseason after finishing two of the previous three seasons on IR and only brought back in-season last year because of injuries to the others.

But losing Young suddenly establishes rush-linebacker as the No. 1 need this offseason, a position group that, pending further offseason roster trims and additions in free agency, has even less under contract (Floyd, who’s missed 10 games over his two seasons) than wide receiver (Cam Meredith, Kevin White) or cornerback (Marcus Cooper, Cre’Von LeBlanc). And in the scheme of importance, pass rusher trails only quarterback on a roster.

“As we go forward we're always going to be looking for pass rushers,” Pace said. “Outside linebacker is an important position for this defense and it's something we'll be mindful of as we go through this process.”

Young projected to be a situational pass rusher, but the Bears operate so much in sub packages that most of their front seven could be called “situational.” But losing Young took away a quality veteran influence as well as production, and in the process just turned up the pressure on Pace to staff the position that defines Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme.

While the defense struggles this offseason to fill a couple of gaping holes (edge rusher, cornerback), word is that the Bears are getting close on deals to cement in place two defensive cornerstones brought in under Pace’s first (2015) draft: safety Adrian Amos and nose tackle Eddie Goldman.

“Those are the things we’re talking about now behind the scenes, different extensions beyond the player acquisition period,” Pace confirmed.

The Bears have a lot – a LOT – of money available for free agents. As mentioned here before, however, so do a lot – a LOT – of other teams, meaning that prices could spiral up to stupid for elite positions like cornerback, or pass rusher. And here’s where having a budding core of young talent – not enough, obviously, from looking at all of 14 wins in three years – and as much money as possible really do matter.

Pace and the Bears have missed badly gambling on free agents with injury smudges on their records – McPhee, Eddie Royal, Quintin Demps (three 16-game seasons in a 10-year career), Markus Wheaton. Because of roster trims made and to come, and overall cap management, the Bears have the money to shop top-shelf and not scrounge for bargains.

Or overpay in guarantees to secure those talents. The Bears settled last offseason for Marcus Cooper, who’d had played all 16 games just once in his four previous seasons, because they didn’t have the coach-quarterback foundation that A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore found in Jacksonville and New England, respectively, along with playoff checks.

“I think there’s always risk in free agency,” Pace said. “We talked about that. A lot of times guys become free agents for a reason and we’re mindful of that. And I think as we continue to build our roster more and more through the draft, maybe we won’t have to supplement as much in free agency.

“But we have to be mindful of that. It is risky. We’ve done a good job of structuring the contracts where we can get out of some of these. But it’s kind of treacherous waters and we have to be careful as we go through this. I think having familiarity with some of these players – we have coaches from multiple other teams. Even in the draft, we now have college coaches on our staff that have background with some of these players. I think that helps the process.”

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.

How Willie Young's reported season-ending injury impacts the Bears

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How Willie Young's reported season-ending injury impacts the Bears

Since the beginning of training camp, the Bears' defense has had to deal with an avalanche of season-ending injuries, from outside linebacker Lamarr Houston to inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman to safety Quintin Demps. According to the Chicago Tribune, Willie Young will be added to that list with a season-ending torn triceps. 

The Bears listed Young as a limited participant in Thursday's practice, but the veteran outside linebacker didn't participate in practice on Friday or Saturday and was officially deemed doubtful for Monday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Young had two sacks this year, tied for the team lead with Akiem Hicks and Pernell McPhee, and totaled 26 sacks since joining the Bears from the Detroit Lions in 2013. 

"It’s definitely going to impact the rotation," McPhee said of Young's injury. "Just another guy who knows how to get after the quarterback. This is where our depth in our room is really going to show in how much we trust in each other. I think we got the guys who can make up for it, but you really can’t make up for Willie, so we got guys who are going to play a major role in this game."

Without Young, the Bears likely will elevate either Isaiah Irving or Howard Jones from the practice squad to the active roster for Monday night. Irving, an undrafted rookie from San Jose State, notched three sacks during preseason play while Jones had five sacks in 2015 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

But Young's injury puts the Bears' defensive depth — which was already going to be tested Monday night —​ in an even more precarious position. McPhee and Leonard Floyd are the only outside linebackers with recent pass-rushing success (Sam Acho had seven sacks in 2011, but only has one sack in four years with the Bears). And Floyd hasn't made an impact getting to the quarterback this year, whiffing on a shot at Ben Roethlisberger in Week 3 and recording his first sack last Thursday against the Green Bay Packers. 

The Bears will need Floyd, especially, to step up and fill the pass-rushing void left by Young. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio intimated that Floyd's back injury, which limited in practice earlier this season, played a part in his slow start to his second year in the NFL. 

"He’s had his good moments and not so good," Fangio said. "He played the first week or so with a little wrenched back that affected him some in the first game and some of the second game. I thought he played well against Pittsburgh. And then last week really none of us played well enough to win.

"... I think he’s progressing on a good, upward trend. It maybe hadn’t translated to the stats, which you guys want to see, but he’s doing fine."

While the Bears' defense has been solid, it hasn't made a lot of big plays: Nine sacks (21st) two forced fumbles (20th) and no interceptions (29th). McPhee on Saturday described what can help jump-start those playmaking efforts —​ efforts that, without Young, will need to be successful for this defense to weather another significant injury. 

"Just (go) out there and — I call it playing chess instead of checkers — just beat your guy," McPhee said. "Don’t worry about how he’s going to block you, just — everybody stays study your opponent, but sometimes you have to study yourself. You could study your opponent all you want to but if you ain’t studying yourself and don’t know what you did wrong, you’ll never win no matter how much you study a guy. So for me, it’s just like, make a guy block you, go make a player, especially when you get that one-on-one."