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Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup

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Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup

Lessons are to be taken from playoffs even for teams not in them (or maybe especially for teams not in them).

Two prominent ones are staring the Bears and everyone else in the facemask as the 2015 postseason opens this weekend and moves in the divisional round next.

The first is that defense still can wins championships. No AFC playoff team ranks worse than No. 11 (Pittsburgh) in scoring. Only Green Bay (12th) and Washington (17th) are out of the top seven, and one of those two will be gone after Sunday. The obvious shock of the 2016 draft may be if the Bears do not grab defense at No. 11 (or higher via trade).

The second is that the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, nearly half of the 2015 playoff field, are playing 17 or more games and in some measure with or even because of backup quarterbacks – in fact, backup quarterbacks drafted despite having apparent franchise starters in place at the time they were drafted.

[RELATED - Rotoworld's NFL mock draft: At No. 11, the Bears select...]

Bears GM Ryan Pace is thinking that direction looking ahead to the 2016 draft, irrespective of Jay Cutler being ensconced as the starter.

“It’s always going to be best player available,” Pace said earlier this week about his draft framework. “So if it’s a quarterback, it’s a quarterback. I’ve said before how important that position is and that will continue to be the case.”

Pace is nothing if not a student of history. His is a strategy that has served championship teams well.

Tom Brady. Mark Rypien. Bart Starr. Joe Montana. All drafted to back up incumbent starters. All drafted third round or later or much later. All Super Bowl MVP’s.

Pace’s first Bears draft produced expected starters with the first five picks and the foundations of the future indeed lie in the draft. But free agency comes first, and by the time their turns come on the second and third days of the 2016 draft, the Bears may have given themselves all-important options, including at quarterback.

The Bengals had Andy Dalton in place and with trips to the playoffs, albeit ending in losses, in each of his first four NFL seasons. Yet the Bengals invested a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft on A.J. McCarron and won two of McCarron’s three starts after Dalton went down in Game 13 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals (12-4) finished two games ahead of the Steelers (10-6).

The Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manning secure as their starter, used their second-round pick in the 2012 draft on Brock Osweiler. With Manning injured, Osweiler started the final seven games, the Broncos went 5-2 in those starts and finished 12-4 – one game ahead of Kansas City (11-5) for a first-round bye.

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The same offseason (2012) that the Seattle Seahawks lavished $9 million guaranteed as part of a $20.5 million deal on quarterback Matt Flynn, with 2011 starter Tavaris Jackson also returning, the Seahawks also used a third-round pick for Russell Wilson, who promptly beat out the other two. Like Dalton, Wilson has gone to postseasons after every one of his years (three) and to Super Bowls after the last two.

The New England Patriots have made history with a backup, having taken Brady with a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft when they were seemingly fixed with Drew Bledsoe. Bill Belichick and the organization followed that template last year when they, like the Broncos two years earlier, used a second-round pick (Jimmy Garoppolo) to back up a Hall of Fame starter.

Two 2012 rounds after the Broncos were drafting Osweiler, Washington was raising eyebrows with the fourth-round selection of Kirk Cousins, ostensibly as Robert Griffin III’s backup. But Washington squeaked into the 2012 playoffs by one game after Cousins rallied the Redskins for one victory and won the following week while Griffin was laid up. This year has belonged to Cousins.

The Bears know how this can work.

They made the 2005 playoffs with an epic-grade defense but also with a backup quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback drafted in the fourth round. More than one member of the Bears’ defense said after the season that the team should’ve stayed with Kyle Orton instead of going back to Rex Grossman and losing to Carolina in the wild-card round.

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.

Bears' pass rush is one of NFL's worst, says PFF

Bears' pass rush is one of NFL's worst, says PFF

The Chicago Bears play in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford, so it's pretty obvious that a key to this season will be the defense's pass rush.

Unfortunately, getting after the quarterback doesn't appear to be a strength of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears have one of the worst group of pass rushers in the NFL.

Right now, expectations for what the Bears can expect off the edge pass-rush wise should be very low. Injuries have slowed Floyd’s development after he was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, leading to just 72 total pressures through three seasons. Starting opposite him will likely be Acho, with Lynch in on nickel pass-rushing packages. Lynch has averaged four sacks, and just over six hits and 21 hurries per season in his four-year career. The Bears top pass-rusher right now is Hicks on the defensive interior, and after producing 49 total pressures in 2017, he will likely need to be their top pass-rusher again in 2018.

If Sam Acho ends up starting opposite Leonard Floyd, then Aaron Lynch will go down as a free-agent bust. He was signed to start, not to be a rotational pass rusher. In fact, it's Acho who's better equipped to rotate into the lineup and provide a burst of energy when needed. 

Sixth-round pick Kylie Fitts is another candidate to bring pressure off the edge for the Bears, but he too is a great unknown. His college resume is littered with injuries and more potential than production. Chicago is high on him, however, and he could be another day-three steal to add to Ryan Pace's draft catalog.

Ultimately, the Bears' pass rush will come down to Floyd and whether he can become the elite sack artist he was drafted to be. In fact, he's entering something of a make-or-break year. If he doesn't prove he can stay healthy enough to register 10 or more sacks this season, Chicago may have to re-think its plan at edge rusher.