Bears

Back from scary concussion, Leonard Floyd playing like franchise pass rusher Bears craved

Back from scary concussion, Leonard Floyd playing like franchise pass rusher Bears craved

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.”

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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.”

Bears receive Sports Illustrated's top offseason grade in NFC North

Bears receive Sports Illustrated's top offseason grade in NFC North

The Chicago Bears are less than one month from the start of training camp, but the praise for general manager Ryan Pace's offseason continues to pour in.

Pace and the Bears received an A for their offseason -- the best grade in the NFC North -- from Sports Illustrated. A big part of the perfect score was the overhaul at wide receiver.

Chicago had one of the weakest receiving groups in the NFL last season—the team ranked dead last in passing yards per game (175.7)—so that position was clearly an area of focus this offseason for general manager Ryan Pace. The additions of Allen Robinson from Jacksonville, Taylor Gabriel from Atlanta and Anthony Miller via the draft will boost a stagnant group, assuming Robinson returns fully healthy from last September’s ACL tear. If 2015 first-round pick Kevin White can stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his ill-fated career, it’s an added bonus.

Much is expected from the revamped group of pass-catchers even though none of them have an overwhelming history of production. Robinson had a dominant season in 2015 (1,400 yards, 14 touchdowns), but his last two seasons involved mediocre production in 2016 and a torn ACL in Week 1 last year. Gabriel's never topped more than 621 yards in a season and tight end Trey Burton has been a backup his whole career. Miller has yet to play a snap in the NFL and White, now entering his fourth season, is still looking for his first touchdown catch.

Mitch Trubisky has a lot of work to do once training camp kicks off. Not only must he master coach Matt Nagy's offense, but he must do so while building chemistry with all of his new receivers. Growing pains will happen, but the upside and expectations for the Bears in 2018 are higher than they've been in many years, and it's all because of a great offseason had by the front office.

Bears shut out (again) in NFL Network players’ poll naming Top 100 players of 2018

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USA TODAY

Bears shut out (again) in NFL Network players’ poll naming Top 100 players of 2018

No NFL season is without its snubs – Pro Bowl omissions, (insert job)-of-the-year head-scratchers, endless “rankings” of units and individuals based on some sort of logic or arcane analyses that challenge credulity.

But the Bears have received a group snub for the second straight year, something that, even discounting personality factors, can be considered a cause for concern, and escalating concern at that.

No Bear is among the Top 100 NFL players as voted on by those NFL players, in the results of the annual poll by NFL Network/NFL.com. The final 10-1 selections air Monday night on NFL Network, but any suspense involves only whether Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is the players’ choice for the No. 1 player in their game, or how the Bears can possibly match up with the L.A. Rams this season and beyond with three in the top 38 and all young (Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Jared Goff).

This year’s blanking follows a shutout in last year’s poll, which represented returns from more than 900 players. This year the number was more than 1,100, making the rankings more than simply the opinion of an individual or even small group.

Making them more disquieting from a Bears perspective is the fact that this marks a de facto third consecutive year that the Bears approach a season without a player whose peers rate him among the top 5 percent in the game. Because the 2016 survey (coming out of the 2015 season) listed running back Matt Forte (No. 90) as the lone Bear, and he was on his way to the New York Jets by the time his number was called.

Rankings based on opinions can skew strangely. Akiem Hicks’ absence from the top 100 is more puzzling than his finishing out of the Pro Bowl money. Same with Eddie Goldman, maybe even Leonard Floyd, to name a few.

But they aren’t there yet. And whether the Bears are bottom-third in pass protection, Nick Kwiatkoski is top-five inside linebacker, or who has a high rating in Madden ’19 can all be classed as cred-lite.

Not so easily dismissed when the evaluation is the aggregate take of nearly two-thirds of the league.

More to the concerning side, some correlation may be drawn between that index of star power and team performance, either cause or effect, or both. The last time the Bears had more than Forte representing them in the Top 100 was 2014, meaning coming off the 2013 season. That Top-100 included Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Tim Jennings and Forte – from the last Bears team (8-8) to win more than six games in a season.

Enough fingers were pointed at Marc Trestman and then John Fox for what happened on the field. But the New York Giants (2) and Houston Texans (4) had fewer wins than the Bears last season but still were represented on the players’ honor roll.

“I need to point the finger at myself as well,” GM Ryan Pace said in the wake of firing Fox. “Our record is a reflection on me as well. But I feel good about where we’re at right now. I feel much better about where we’re at right now than at this time last year and that starts with the quarterback position. We have a 23-year-old quarterback that we feel very good about that we need to build around. We need to build upon that core and fortunately we have the resources to do that.”

One of Pace’s mandates has been to bring Bears talent to a level competitive with at least the NFC North. The more than 1,100 players canvassed don’t think it’s happening: The Bears are one of only four teams (plus Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and the Jets) not represented in the top 100, while Detroit (2), Green Bay (7) and Minnesota (5) have multiple selections. Even the 0-16 Cleveland Browns boast a pair – wide receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Carlos Hyde) by virtue of their offseason moves.

Getting down to Bears cases

The Bears may be convinced that Mitch Trubisky is a franchise quarterback, but his 12 starts apparently didn’t show enough for his peers to vote him into elite status. Deshaun Watson (No. 50, six starts) and Jimmy Garoppolo (No. 90, five starts) fared better in the balloting.

Trubisky goes into 2018 as the fourth-best quarterback in a four-quarterback NFC North. Player voting pretty much confirms that, leaving him off a list that includes Kirk Cousins in Minnesota (No. 94), Matthew Stafford in Detroit (No. 31) and Rodgers (top 10). And Trubisky knows he’s got some catching up to do.

“I just feel like I know what to expect more on a day-to-day basis,” he said during minicamp. “What I need to do, how I can make my teammates' job easier — and just continue to set goals. Weekly goals, short-term goals, continue to meet those goals, keep raising the bar and get better each and every single day.”

Jeffery and Marshall are Bears no longer, but Allen Robinson is, which Pace has wagered heavily will be a very good thing. Robinson’s peers in the past have agreed: Robinson was pegged at No. 31 in 2016, coming in off his 80-1,400-14 season of 2015. He came back to produce 73-883-6 in 2016 but finished off the list, perhaps not entirely surprising after his Jaguars went 3-13 in 2016. The Bears are gambling that Robinson will return to his elite form from last year’s torn ACL; the rest of the NFL has effectively said “prove it.”

Jordan Howard’s fit in the offense of Matt Nagy/Mark Helfrich has been and will be debated until he proves himself conclusively as a receiver. And Howard and Tarik Cohen may be popular among rankers of backfields.

But not yet with their peers. Neither made the players’ list, while New Orleans placed Alvin Kamara No. 20 and Mark Ingram 43rd among the top six running backs, which include Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt.

Floyd, Goldman and Hicks? Too many Pro Bowl selections ahead of them, at least at this point.