Bears

Three questions for Bears pass rush: What is Leonard Floyd's ceiling?

Three questions for Bears pass rush: What is Leonard Floyd's ceiling?

 

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving
3. Kylie Fitts
4. Elijah Norris
5. Josh Woods

1. Sam Acho
2. Aaron Lynch
3. Kasim Edebali
4. Andrew Trumbetti

1. What is Leonard Floyd’s ceiling?

Floyd’s career to this point has been limited by injuries, but in the 22 games in which he’s played he’s only averaged one sack every 97 snaps. That’s essentially what Pernell McPhee provided last year (one sack ever 96 snaps), for comparison’s sake. The point being: Not only do we not know if Floyd can stay healthy for a full year, we might not know if he can live up to the expectations for a top-10-picked pass rusher.

Coaches and Floyd felt like they fixed the reason for Floyd’s concussion issues from his rookie year, which they believed was the product of poor tackling form. Floyd’s season-ending knee injury last year was a freak, unavoidable one, to be fair — but he’s still missed a total of 10 games in his two-year career.

The Bears haven’t lost confidence in Floyd’s potential, though — if that were the case, Ryan Pace likely would’ve added more to his team’s outside linebacking corps. In the short term, Floyd is a key player to watch in Bourbonnais — impactful practices are important for building up his mental confidence in his knee. In the long term, the Bears’ bet on Floyd needs to pay off, otherwise this pass rush may not be good enough in a quarterback-centric division.

2. Can Aaron Lynch be a diamond in the rough?

Lynch had a productive rookie year under Vic Fangio in 2014, recording six sacks and looking like a nice fifth-round find for the San Francisco 49ers. After Fangio was passed over for the 49ers’ head coaching job and left for the Bears, Lynch still notched 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

But he only appeared in 14 games in 2016 and 2017 due to conditioning and injury issues, as well as a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse. When Lynch did play, he wasn’t effective, with only 2 1/2 sacks in those 14 games covering 379 snaps.

So that’s why Lynch signed for only one year and $4 million, with only $1.25 million of his salary guaranteed, according to Spotrac. The Bears hope a fresh start and reunion with Fangio will benefit Lynch, but the prove-it nature of his contract doesn’t guarantee him anything more than a chance.

“It’s exciting getting back with Vic, you know, he drafted me,” Lynch said. “I know his defense. So being it's something I'm used to and the fresh start like I mean, I've had my ups and downs in this league and it's just nice to come here to people with open arms that believe in me so now I've just got to come here and play football so it feels amazing.”

Getting six or so sacks out of Lynch would be huge for the Bears’ defense, but those efforts begin with the 25-year-old staying healthy. That Lynch suffered hamstring and ankle injuries during the offseason program was a little concerning, even if they weren’t characterized as anything but minor knocks.

3. What are fair expectations for Kylie Fitts?

The 6-foot-4, 265 pound Fitts is an intriguing prospect in that he tested well at the NFL Combine and, before injuries limited his junior and senior years, posted an eye-popping 2015 (seven TFLs, seven sacks, 10 pass break-ups, four forced fumbles). Fitts doesn’t believe the injuries he suffered at Utah (Lisfranc/foot, ankle sprain, shoulder sprain) will linger or pop back up in his pro career, though.

“I think I got all my injuries over with,” Fitts said. “I think it’s just a run of bad luck and it’s over now. I’m healthy, feeling good now, and I’m banking on remaining healthy and playing good.”

Still, every team in the NFL passed on Fitts until the Bears used the 181st pick to draft him in April. That doesn’t mean he won’t have success — Jordan Howard was the 150th pick in the 2016 draft, after all — but he’ll head to Bourbonnais with plenty of work to do to earn a role in Fangio’s defense. The Bears’ outside linebacking depth chart may not look strong, but that doesn’t mean Fitts will waltz into a prominent role. What he does in practices and preseason games will go a long way toward determining his outlook for 2018.

Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

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Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

Bears coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure on Monday if Adam Shaheen’s right ankle sprain would keep him from playing Week 1 in Green Bay. If it does, though, it would represent the fourth consecutive regular season game the second-year tight end would miss dating back to last year. 

In a coincidental connection, too, it would mark the second straight year Shaheen wouldn’t be able to immediately build off a strong showing against the Cincinnati Bengals. Last December, Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards with a touchdown in the Bears’ 33-7 win in Cincinnati; he caught all three of his targets for 53 yards against the Bengals in Aug. 9’s preseason game. 

Shaheen suffered a chest injury during that Bengals game last December and was inactive for the Bears’ final three games of the season. Coincidences aside, Shaheen’s ankle injury represents another speed bump in his developmental path, depending on the severity of it. 

But the good news, perhaps, is that Shaheen has made strides this training camp and preseason. We’ll look at one specific play against the Bengals that stands out below. 

To set it up: Earlier this month, Shaheen talked about how he’s improved at reading coverages and how that’s helped him improve as a route runner. That’s something that has come with experience as he enters Year 2 in the NFL. 

“It’s a big part of this offense as a receiver, recognize the coverage and where you need to be,” Shaheen said. “How you get there is everything.

“… There’s a little more not-so-much focus on, like, a perfect square cut. It’s more, like I said earlier, against this coverage you need to be in that hole at the right time. You might just be in that hole just pulling a defender another way to open up your teammate. That’s a big part.”

That growing savviness was on display in Cincinnati on Aug. 9. Specifically, this play:

Shaheen runs a drag over the middle on third-and-four but encounters linebacker Hardy Nickerson (red circle) standing in his way.

Instead of keeping strictly to the route and trying to run through or beneath Nickerson (yellow arrow), Shaheen faced up to the Bengals’ linebacker, did an inside-out juke move and goes to Nickerson's outside shoulder (blue arrow).

Shaheen is then able to use his strength and athleticism to gain leverage on Nickerson and work his way into the open field. 

The whole play took all of two seconds to develop, and by the time Chase Daniel releases the ball, Shaheen has a step on Nickerson. The result is not just a first down, but a 29-yard completion. 

“Some routes are locked in, and other ones we’ve got a little wiggle room to work,” Shaheen said. “Those ones are obviously very good to see a linebacker over there because you know you can really have an opportunity to get the ball and work him.”

Those little things will continue to grow Shaheen’s game with more experience. The potential is there for Shaheen to play a significant role in the Bears’ offense in 2018 — provided he’s healthy for the start of it. 

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Measuring the impact and domino effect of Leonard Floyd’s fractured right hand suffered in the weekend win over the Denver Broncos is next to impossible at this juncture simply because what Floyd’s effectiveness will be in a cast isn’t remotely clear. Coach Matt Nagy noted Monday that players have functioned with a “club” for a hand but the Bears need more than Floyd just playing.

The injury, which required surgery, affects Floyd’s fingers, and irrespective of the specific injury, those requiring casting and club-like encasement have dramatically affected effectiveness in even the game’s top pass rushers: Clay Matthews in Green Bay (2013); Jason Pierre-Paul with the Giants (2015); J.J. Watt in Houston (2016).

Nagy used the word “relief” in talking about Floyd’s situation; good word choice. Because the Bears have lost elite linebackers to season-ending thumb or wrist injuries (Bryan Cox, 1996; Brian Urlacher 2009).

But any diminishing of Floyd’s effectiveness projects to a potential catastrophe for a Bears defense wanting to start fast and help an offense that will be learning to stand fully upright through its first season under Nagy. Pass rushers, particularly speed rushers, need their hands. And fingers.

The reason is more than simply Floyd. It’s the construction of the Bears defense and its rush options. Because in the Bears’ case, numbers can obscure the true nature – and degree of vulnerability – of the Bears’ pass rush.

The defense posted 42 sacks in 2017, ranking an eminently respectable tied for seventh despite being without a single defender with more than Akiem Hicks’ 8-1/2, and better than Arizona (17th) with Chandler Jones (17 sacks), for example.

That is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that a top-10 defense was not based on one individual rush terror – a Matthews, Watt, Von Miller. Consider it a rush-by-committee, with Floyd, Hicks, Sam Acho, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young or any of more than a half-dozen threats capable of delivering one of the single most devastating defensive plays other than a takeaway.

But that is also the bad news. Because the Bears lost McPhee, Young, Lamarr Houston and the players who produced more than one-third (14-1/2) of the 42 sacks.

This is more than a simple headcount issue; it’s an integrated-whole problem. The Bears had so many potential impact rushers, their scheme was able to bring pressure from different places and players. The rush may not have had one elite pocket disruptor, but it did have quantity to the point where double-teaming any one created opportunities that non-elite rushers exploited.

Acho benefitted from Young benefitted from McPhee benefitted from Hicks benefitted from Floyd benefitted from... You get the idea.

The point is that no Bears rusher was, or now, is, capable of exerting consistent dominance by himself, as great pass rushers do. Dan Hampton benefitted from Richard Dent, but Hampton was a Pro Bowl rush threat before Dent arrived. Watt had 20 1/2 sacks in 2012, before the Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney, and 20 1/2 in 2014 when Clowney only played four games.

The Bears situation is not necessarily a crisis; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is by definition the antithesis of crisis. But the Bears lost a significant number of those parts. Liken it to the Bears having a great offensive line and losing a couple of starters: The remaining starters could the better members of the “great” group, but unless the lost players are replaced with talent equal to or greater than the losses, the chances of the group achieving anywhere near what it was when it had all its components are slim.

Hicks is coming off a career year. But the Bears did little to replace Houston, McPhee and Young, who contributed both to Floyd’s development and his production. Now the pass rusher drafted to be a linchpin of the Bears defense has a significant impairment.

So does the entire defense.