Bears

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.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Mitch Trubisky still 'the guy?'

trubisky_vikings.jpg
USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Mitch Trubisky still 'the guy?'

KC Johnson, Jamal Collier and Jay Cohen join Laurence on the panel.
0:00 - Ryan Pace says he believes in Mitch. Matt Nagy says Mitch needs to be able to read defenses better than his head coach.  So is Mitch still the guy for the Bears? 
9:00 - Jim Boylen doesn't think the Bulls will hold his poor win-loss record against him.  Is that fair given all of the injuries the teams has?
13:00 - NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh joins Laurence. He discusses how the rest of the league feels about Boylen's late-game timeouts, the Kobe Bryant memorial service and if Zion can lead the Pelicans to the playoffs.
17:00 - Ozzie Guillen joins to the panel on White Sox night at the Bulls game. Plus he gives his thoughts on the upcoming season for the Southsiders.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

 

Sports Talk Live Podcast

Subscribe:

Bears and Ryan Pace praise "underrated" (and highly paid) Leonard Floyd

Bears and Ryan Pace praise "underrated" (and highly paid) Leonard Floyd

I would make an argument that Leonard Floyd is the most divisive player on the Bears right now. Trubisky seems like the runaway candidate until you realize everyone already feels the same way about him. 

Floyd, on the other hand, gets a lot of love from the All-The-Tools gang while garnering equal amounts of hate from people who swear by Pro Football Focus. He's an incredibly athletic, situationally-useful edge rusher who just can't really get to the passer. Is there value in that? Of course! How much? I don't know, but it's probably not $13 million. That's how much Floyd, who had a career-low 3 sacks last season, is going to make in 2020, and it's surely a number the Bears are taking a long look at this winter. $13 million is a lot of money for an edge rusher who shows up in the box score; it's certainly a lot of money for an edge rusher who doesn't.

RELATED: Will Ryan Pace's actions speak louder than his words

You would think this predicament might open the Bears up to some sort of contract restructuring, or even a trade. Every moment of media availability at the combine is just a chance for general managers to set smokescreens, but it sure doesn't sound like the Bears are trying to move on. 

"I think Leonard wants to be more productive as a pass rusher," Pace said on Tuesday morning. We want him to be more productive there too. He's close in a lot of areas when you look at the pressures and those things. He just needs to finish a little better on the quarterback. But I think when you're evaluating him, you have to factor in everything. His run defense. His ability in coverage."

"We consider him our "Sam" outside linebacker, so we value what he can do in coverage and think sometimes that goes a little underrated for what he does in that area, for a guy that's of his stature. Not many outside linebackers can drop in coverage like he does. So, that's a factor."

Maybe that's what the Bears WANT us to think! Maybe Pace is playing chess while we're all playing checkers. Or maybe he has a problem knowing when to cut bait with a high draft pick who hasn't panned out. Who knows! 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.