Leonard Floyd wasn’t doing particularly well in the early stages of Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. First there was the snow, which was a new experience for the Bears rookie rush-linebacker, who was born in Georgia and played his high school and college football in the Peach State.
Then there was the matter of getting back up to NFL game speed after suffering a concussion sustained in a frightening collision with teammate Akiem Hicks two weeks ago against the New York Giants.
“Yeah, the beginning of the game I was playing too jittery,” Floyd said. “I wasn’t playing like myself. The more the game went on, the more I settled down.”
And finally was the problem of facing All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley, who repeatedly dominated Floyd in the first half the way a five-time Pro Bowler can do to a rookie.
“He’s up there with the top,” Floyd said. "He’s definitely a guy that has been in the league and has been dominant while he’s been here. I was looking forward to the matchup the whole week, and I enjoyed the whole matchup during the game.”
Staley might have been, too. He isn’t looking back at it fondly right now.
Floyd sacked Colin Kaepernick in the third quarter and Blaine Gabbert in the fourth, the latter for a safety. The sacks were in addition to four solo tackles, one for loss, as Floyd shook off his early troubles with Staley. That, as much as the actual plays, might have been the biggest positive for a young player.
“Even early in yesterday’s game we could have played a couple of things a little bit better,” coach John Fox said. “What was impressive about Leonard was being able to put maybe a couple of not some of his better plays behind him. I thought he responded really well in the second half.”
[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]
The significance of Floyd’s playmaking, Sunday and in other recent games, cannot be overstated.
No draft pick carries as much weight in the early formation of Ryan Pace’s job evaluation and legacy as Bears general manager than that of Floyd. Period. Pace is in his position in part because the Bears as a franchise has fallen behind division and NFC rivals over the past decade because of a succession of misses on first-round draft choices.
To some extent, Fox’s personnel skills were involved. Fox began his turnarounds in Carolina and Denver with top-10 picks of edge defenders: Julius Peppers in 2002 and Von Miller in 2011, both No. 2 overall. The priority placed on Floyd was in no small part rooted in evaluations of the two ranking members of the coaching staff for defense, Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio, whose building of a championship defense in San Francisco also began with a top-10 pick on an edge rusher: Aldon Smith, the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft.
Floyd means even more than injury-plagued Kevin White, the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft, Pace’s first. Floyd was not only a high first-round pick, he also was one that Pace regarded so highly that the Bears general manager felt compelled to trade up two spots to beat the Giants to Floyd.
For a time last offseason, with Floyd ill to start training camp, then suffering from a handful of injuries, the choice was open to serious question, even as Floyd was a mild surprise as a starter on opening day. Floyd collected half a sack in the loss at Houston but then was far from an impact factor in the next three games and then inactive with a hamstring injury the two after that.
Since then, however, Floyd has become nothing short of a significant contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Floyd suffered his concussion and had to leave the game against the Giants and was inactive last week against the Tennessee Titans. But in the four complete games since he was inactive those two weeks, Floyd has totaled 6.5 sacks, one of those accounting for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers and another going for a safety Sunday vs. the 49ers.
Floyd’s seven sacks lead all rookies, and his play in the San Francisco game will have him under high consideration for Rookie of the Week.
All of that pales next to seeing Floyd come through the hit that produced the concussion. Floyd lay on the field as teammates raced to him, and he eventually was taken off the field on a cart and a board to immobilize his neck.
“I can’t really remember much after the hit,” Floyd said. “I just knew that the trainers were telling me that I was gonna be all right, I was gonna be fine, and I was just listening to them the whole time and what they were saying. It was the first time I experienced (that). I was kinda scared at the moment. Like pretty much a day later, I felt like I was going to be back out there soon.
“It was just bad technique. I’m looking at myself, studying myself. Bad technique. My head was down.”
With his safety Sunday and touchdown in Green Bay, Floyd (eight points) is outscoring receiver Alshon Jeffery (six). Floyd is 6-foot-4, has speed and he played tight end in high school. So ... offense?
“Nah,” Floyd said, laughing. “I’m going to stick to getting after the quarterbacks, man.”