Bears

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

willie_young_again.jpg
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.”

Chicago Bears Training Camp: Veteran and rookie report dates

6-8trubiskyqbs.jpg
USA Today

Chicago Bears Training Camp: Veteran and rookie report dates

Chicago Bears training camp is right around the corner with the first practice (non-padded) scheduled for July 21. 

Bears veterans and rookies will report a few days ahead of that first session to acclimate themselves to their new (for some) surroundings. Rookies report on July 16, with veterans coming three days later on July 19.

All eyes will be on QB Mitch Trubisky and the potentially high-flying offense under coach Matt Nagy. Training camp will take on extra importance because of the plethora of new faces on the roster and coaching staff as well as the installation of a completely new offensive scheme. It's critical that Trubisky builds chemistry with wide receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Kevin White, all of whom he's never thrown a regular-season pass to. Add Trey Burton to that mix and a lot of miscues should be expected in the preseason.

The rookie class is led by linebacker Roquan Smith, who remains unsigned. With less than 30 days until rookies are required to report, a greater sense of urgency -- even if it's not quite a panic -- is certainly creeping in. Assuming he's signed in time, Smith should earn a starting role early in training camp and ascend to one of the defense's top all-around players. 

The Bears have higher-than-usual expectations heading into the 2018 season making fans eager for summer practices to get underway.

Leonard Floyd picked as potential Pro Bowler in 2018

Leonard Floyd picked as potential Pro Bowler in 2018

The Chicago Bears need a big season from outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. He's the team's best pass-rush option and the only legitimate threat to post double-digit sacks this year.

Floyd joined the Bears as a first-round pick (No. 9 overall) in 2016 and has flashed freakish talent at times. The problem has been his health; he's appeared in only 22 games through his first two seasons. 

Floyd's rookie year -- especially Weeks 5 through 9 -- showed a glimpse of the kind of disruptive force he's capable of becoming. He registered seven sacks and looked poised to breakout in 2017. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to only 10 games and four sacks.

Despite his disappointing sophomore season, NFL.com's Gil Brandt has high hopes for Floyd in 2018. The long-time NFL personnel executive named Floyd as the Bear with the best chance to earn a first-time trip to the Pro Bowl.

CHICAGO BEARS: Leonard Floyd, OLB, third NFL season. Floyd had seven sacks as a rookie in 2016, but missed six games last season due to a knee injury. He's a talented guy who can drop into coverage or rush with his hand on the ground and should play much better this season. He also has become much stronger since coming into the league.

The Bears will be in a heap of trouble if Floyd doesn't emerge as a Pro Bowl caliber player. There aren't many pass-rushing options on the roster outside of Floyd aside from Aaron Lynch and rookie Kylie Fitts. Neither edge defender has a resume strong enough to rely on as insurance.

It's a critical year for Floyd's future in Chicago, too. General manager Ryan Pace will decide whether to pick up Floyd's fifth-year option in his rookie contract next offseason. If he plays well, it's a no-brainer. If not, Pace could be looking at two straight first-round picks (see: Kevin White) that he's declined the extra year.

We're a long way from that decision. Until then, the Bears' season may sink or swim based on its pass rush. It begins -- and ends -- with Floyd.