Bears defense gets a boost from even partial return of Pernell McPhee

Bears defense gets a boost from even partial return of Pernell McPhee

For a defense struggling to rush passers and stop opponents short of 20 points, Friday was an official day for at least a small beam of light off in the distance.

The glow was emanating from outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, the marquee signing of GM Ryan Pace early the 2015 offseason but whose first year in Chicago spiraled downward with a left-knee injury that reduced him to more games inactive (two) than sacks (one) over the final nine games, and eventually required surgery this offseason.

Friday was the first day McPhee was eligible to practice after being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open the season. He spent his first practice serving on the scout team, simulating Jacksonville Jaguars plays and formations for his teammates.

“Feel awesome,” McPhee said afterwards. “I feel great, man. I'm out there practicing, running around with my teammates, so that's the best feeling in the world.”

McPhee would be eligible to play next Thursday against the Packers in Green Bay. As for whether he will: “You'll see, you'll see,” McPhee said, smiling.

The Bears now have 21 days within which to move him onto the 53-man roster, or be forced to relegate him to injured reserve for the remainder of the season. The final date for the roster decision would be Nov. 4, the Friday before the Bears’ bye week, which would set his return for the Nov. 13 game at Tampa Bay, the scene of McPhee’s final sack last season.

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Getting him back would be one of the best feelings in the world for the Bears defense. McPhee was voted by teammates as one of the defensive co-captains and put up five sacks over the span of five games last season before his knee issues really set in.

Now he looms as a potential in-season booster shot for a defense that has gotten virtually no impact pass rushing from a corps of linebackers that projected to be a strength this season. But Lamarr Houston, the 2015 sack leader with eight, was lost for the season with a knee injury, and No. 1 draft pick Leonard Floyd has delivered just a half-sack being in and out of the lineup with injuries.

A fresh McPhee and his emotional edge can be a lift for the entire defense.

“Any time that guys can look next to him and see kind of an integral part or a guy that can be a integral part to help you win, obviously that gives you confidence," Bears head coach John Fox said. "It gives you a boost of energy.

“I think jokingly guys refer to it as ‘fresh legs.’ You know they haven't been out there through the grind of practicing all week and over the course of time, a month's worth of time. You know guys do have a little bit of a freshness to them. It's a little hard to tell on the first day and it wasn't a padded practice, it wasn't a real extensive practice, Fridays typically a little more of a light workout but I'd say I think there was some enthusiasm there and some freshness there for sure.”

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman is entering the final year of his contract this season and in order to cash in on a big payday, he'll need to stay healthy and make good on his top-tier potential. 

If he does, he'll become a very wealthy man and the Bears defense will have an even better year than its top-10 finish a season ago.

Goldman, 24, came to Chicago via the second round of the 2015 NFL draft and quickly became a household name among Bears fans. He started 12 games that season and finished with a surprising 4 1/2 sacks, a total that was more productive than his college scouting report predicted. He was pegged as a breakout star for 2016, but injuries ultimately derailed his second season. He played only six games that year (started five) but still flashed a surprisingly productive set of pass-rush traits; he finished 2016 with 2 1/2 sacks.

This past season represented something of a mixed bag for Goldman. He started 15 games and quieted some of the injury concerns that started bubbling around him, but his production dipped. He managed only 1 1/2 sacks. That said, he set a career-high with 27 tackles, nearly doubling his output as a rookie.

Still, Goldman wasn't a dominant force in 2017. He finished the year ranked 69th among interior defenders with a 76.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Despite being healthy and available, it was the lowest season grade of his career from PFF.

Nose tackle is arguably the most critical position for any defense running a 3-4 scheme. It's no exception in Chicago. Goldman will set the table for linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith and the more bodies he can consume or attention he can draw from offensive lines, the more room second-level defenders will have to work. It's not just about filling up the stat sheet for Goldman. If he clogs running lanes and collapses the pocket consistently, he'll be worth every penny of a big contract extension despite lacking numbers.

The Bears need Goldman to bring his A-game in 2018, especially as a pass rusher. Chicago resides in arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL and for the defense to make those quarterbacks uncomfortable, Goldman has to apply pressure up the middle. He's proven he can do it, as evidenced by his rookie year production. But he's been on a steady decline in this area of his game since then and there's no room for more regression in 2018.

Players entering contract years tend to bring extra motivation to the field and there's no reason to expect anything less from Goldman. If he can combine his rookie year production with last season's availability, he could end up with the most well-rounded year of his career en route to leading the Bears' defensive line on a late-season playoff push.