His world is changing, as most do in the NFL from year to year. But for Leonard Floyd this year comes with deep and profound implications for both the Bears and himself, as well as professional changes that come with some personal impact on a young pass rusher the Bears envision as a franchise pillar.
The outside linebacker has back his coaching staff, particularly coordinator Vic Fangio: “I was glad he returned; coach Vic is one of my favorite people in the building.”
But a couple of his other favorite people in the building aren’t returning. Pernell McPhee is now a Baltimore Raven, and Willie Young, a mentor and weekly dinner companion along with Akiem Hicks, was released in February. The exits didn’t change his assignments on the field, but they redefined Floyd’s role off of it.
“Having them in the room, it gave me the opportunity to learn how to be a professional,” Floyd said on Thursday, “and then they departed, so now it’s my turn to step up and be the leader of the room… . Everything that comes with it – being accountable, knowing your playbook and going out and showing that I’m a leader and practicing like a leader.”
The importance of Floyd’s 2018 season to the Bears cannot be overstated. He is the ranking edge rusher on a defense that is short of them by virtue of the McPhee and Young departures, and there are injury issues hanging over both Floyd (knee) and recently Aaron Lynch (hamstring, ankle).
Floyd has practiced during OTA’s and minicamp to differing degrees, continues to wear a brace on his right knee that he admits is a bit restrictive, and is confronted with making up for lost time, missing the last six games last season due to the knee and four games his rookie season with concussions. He is not as far along developmentally as he and the Bears would like.
“I think [missed time] delays his development more last year when it happened, and he missed the last [six],” Fangio said. “But it has. There’s no way around that. Everybody needs as many reps in practice as they can get. He’s really anxious to do it. He’s been begging the trainers and medical people to let him out there a little earlier. But I think he’ll overcome it.”
Floyd’s ability to overcome involves a high price, literally. The year takes on even great significance for Floyd, who is in a de facto “contract year” by virtue of his selection by the Bears with the No. 9 pick of the 2016 first round. After this season, the Bears will have the decision of whether to pick up the fifth-year (2020) option on Floyd’s rookie deal. Performance issues caused them to decline those options for Kyle Fuller (2014’s No. 1) and Kevin White (2015). The franchise cannot afford a continuing string of No. 1’s who do not make themselves worth that guaranteed fifth year.
Floyd is due to earn $2.6 million in 2019. The fifth-year option, which is for the average of the top 10 players at his position, paid $13.85 million for first-round rush linebackers from 2014 (Kalil Mack) and $14.2 million this offseason for 2015’s (Vic Beasley).
Not that a declined option is the end of anything. The Bears passed on the option that would’ve paid Fuller $8.52 million last year, whereupon he played his way into a four-year contract averaging $14 million per season.
The fact is that right now, the Bears don’t truly know what they will get from Floyd in six weeks when training camp begins.
“I think the biggest thing when you run into a knee issue like that is just having that trust in the knee and how it’s going to be with some of the different stunts and rushes that you have, the drops,” said coach Matt Nagy. “For him, his strength is his size and his speed. We don’t have the pads on so he can’t go out there and really show, he’ll be out there in 7-on-7 and he has to pull up because he can’t do certain moves. So come back and ask me [about him] in the summer.”
However the physical situation plays out, Floyd already has had a chance to develop his leadership voice.
Georgia teammate Roquan Smith was the Bears’ first-round pick in the 2018 draft. Floyd was outspoken in his personnel opinion.
“I prayed that we were going to pick him,” Floyd said, smiling. “I was always, every day in the meeting room, saying, ‘Coach, we gotta get Roquan, we gotta get Roquan.’ I’m just glad they went and got him. He’s a great player.”
Which is what the Bears are hoping for Floyd.