John Mullin

For Bears and OLB Leonard Floyd, a tipping-point year is at hand

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USA TODAY

For Bears and OLB Leonard Floyd, a tipping-point year is at hand

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.

A Bears offense causing 'fits' for a good defense? No, really, Bears say it’s happening

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USA TODAY

A Bears offense causing 'fits' for a good defense? No, really, Bears say it’s happening

Akiem Hicks likes what he is seeing in the Chicago Bear offense as being constituted by coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich. He just doesn’t like playing against it.

“It’s just overall… it’s just blazing,” the Bears’ best defensive lineman said on Tuesday. “Everybody’s catching balls and everybody on the offensive side, they just look a little bit fresher and a little bit quicker and more likely to make a play.

“There’s so many dang moving parts, it gives us fits in practice.”

Bears offenses don’t give too many teams or players “fits,” so that would be a good thing, or at least a leaning in a good direction. And superlatives from a very good member of a very good defense carry some cred because Hicks and the defense certainly have a pretty good idea what an inept Bears offense looks like.

The Chicago offense is causing difficulties for its companion defense. And the chief executive of that defense actually has gone so far as to include the Bears’ and Green Bay’s offenses in the same comment, something that has not happened since… well… since … when did Walter retire? Sid Luckman?

“The guys in pass coverage have to be slow to react to what looks like an obvious run,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, “and they have to maintain the discipline of the pass coverage because basically they’re running quick games with the running game.

“Green Bay has been running these types of plays for a long time, just not to the abundance that now more teams are doing it. We’ve all seen where the quarterback gets the ball under center and throws it out real quick to a receiver because the DB is way off. Now they’re just doing that out of the shotgun, but they’re running routes with it, whereas under center you can’t do it. You know, quick routes. It’s, I don’t want to say a problem, but it’s different and it’s new and you have to adjust to it.”

Looking for impact from the get-go

Sometimes the subtleties and implications of statistics are a bit arcane. Sometimes they smack you right between the eyes.

The Bears were outscored last season in three of four quarters. No real surprise there; teams don’t go 5-11 by outscoring opponents at many points of many games. The 2017 Bears were 0-10 when trailing after three quarters, making it mildly interesting that the only quarter in which the Bears finished with a scoring edge (83-72) was the fourth. Since they were 0-10 when trailing after three quarters, one suggested explanation would be that opponents took their feet off the gas with games pretty well in hand.

More telling perhaps, though, is that the Bears were 1-7 when they’d fallen behind after the first quarter, 0-10 when trailing (0-9) or tied (0-1) at halftime. In nine of 16 first quarters, the Chicago offense failed to score at all, meaning that the Bears may have had the ninth-ranked scoring defense (20 ppg), but that defense was effectively playing from behind for the majority of last season, which saps the spirit as well as the body collective.

“For us,” Hicks said, “I think the biggest difference is having an offense that’s going to score in the first half.”

The Bears last season averaged 8.2 points per first half – 28th in the NFL. The number was the same for Mitch Trubisky as it was for Mike Glennon.

The 131 total Bears first-quarter points scored from 2015-17 is the lowest three-year point total since the paltry 2002-04 days of Chad Hutchinson/Craig Krenzel/Kordell Stewart/Jonathan Quinn (125).

The front office and head coach gave the defense back its coaching staff and threw in the first-round draft pick to sweeten the deal. But the bigger boost the defense has received came not on its own side of the football, but on the other, where what is happening with a still-molten offense already has had an impact on a unit that could have been excused for complaining of non-support.

The effect of the offensive changes has registered on the other side of the ball.

“The offense is definitely a pretty good offense,” said rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, whose college frame of reference from Georgia has been the SEC. “And Coach Nagy’s system is pretty neat. They do a lot of great things on that side of the ball."

Bears lofty LB history entering new phase with different, bigger edge rushers

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Bears lofty LB history entering new phase with different, bigger edge rushers

This story starts in one direction, from an appraisal of the greatest linebackers in the history of the game by one of the great personnel minds in the history of the NFL. And then it circles back to the Bears, who for the last several years have been going in an interesting direction at the position, a direction with some implications for their short- and longer-term futures.

It’s also a look at where the NFL has been and is trending in the pivotal area – for the Bears and others – of rush linebacker. An overarching Bears question is whether their edge rushers can deliver a winning pass rush that a secondary coming off three straight 8-interception seasons desperately needs.

First, some backdrop and context, then the Bears.

NFL.com has put together a ranking of the 47 (nice round number) greatest linebackers of all time. Not just NFL.com, though: The list is the work of Gil Brandt, now a senior analyst for NFL Media but also one of the legends who combined with Tex Schramm and Tom Landry to form the original foundation of the Dallas Cowboys beginning in 1960. Gil pioneered many of the personnel metrics and principles that are still operational in the NFL in different iterations.

Point is, Gil is one of those “elders” who have seen and remained relevant through just about every iteration the NFL game has gone through. (Great societies treasure their elders; sports doesn’t do that enough, too often casting the great mind aside as being left behind by the times. Gil is one of those treasures.)

To that end, what makes the Brandt ranking very noteworthy is that he has factored in schemes from 4-3 (Dick Butkus. Brian Urlacher, Ray Nitschke) to 3-4 (Lawrence Taylor, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling) to “Flex” (Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan), from historic (Bill George, Chuck Bednarik) to current (Luke Kuechly, DeMarcus Ware).

Some of the rankings are surprising (Ted Hendricks, 4; Ray Lewis, 12; Nick Buoniconti, 41). But to this writer, whose first NFL game involved Bednarik and who’s seen a great deal of every one on the list except Connor and Les Richter, it’s worth a stroll through some great history, and it IS some true perspective.

Parenthetically, Gil lists six Bears among his elite 47: Butkus (No. 3), George (7), Mike Singletary (16), Urlacher (19), George Connor (28) and Joe Fortunato (39).  

Getting to the main Bears point

Gil’s listing sparks some thoughts on what is unfolding at the linebacker position for the Vic Fangio Bears.

For all of the winds of change blowing through the Bears offense, subtle ones are playing out on defense as well, a unit that is a base 3-4 but spends more of its time in a 4-3 for nickel matchups. And in an NFL that tilts toward the pass (Bears opponents threw on 56.8 percent of their plays in 2017 despite being ahead far more of the time than not), the issue of pass rush becomes paramount, with the Bears losing more than one-third (14.5) of their tied-for-seventh sack total (42).

With apologies to the inside push from Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the issue is linebackers. About which Fangio had an interesting conclusion:

“The days of the pure speed rushers – the Fred Deans, even the Derrick Thomases – are pretty much over,” Fangio said. Notably, Thomas was Gil Brandt’s No. 2 linebacker of all time, behind only LT.

What made the Brandt rankings and the Bears situation an interesting juxtaposition is that virtually the only one of the top 15 or so linebackers topped 250 pounds. (Also notable that it was Thomas, 255, suggesting that the late Kansas City edge terror would have more than fit in the current NFL).

The Bears, who this offseason moved on from Pernell McPhee (270 pounds) and DE/LB Willie Young (258), currently have as their top edge rushers Sam Acho (260 pounds), Leonard Floyd (251), Aaron Lynch (270) and rookie Kylie Fitts (260). Ostensibly, not a group of sack threats because of size. But they are in absolute step with where the NFL is getting its sacks now, particularly Floyd, straight out of the Hendricks model, just 30 pounds bigger.

Of the top 10 linebackers for sacks in 2017, only San Diego’s Melvin Ingram (247) is smaller than 250. Where once the Hendrickses (225), Kevin Greenes (240), Charles Haleys (245) and Lawrence Taylor (237) once ruled, giants now dominate.

Where pure speed was once the sine qua non on the outside, now not so much.

“We talk about being able to win three ways as a rusher,” said Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley. “Winning with speed, winning with power or winning with ‘hands.’

“When you can win on the edge with power, that’s gives you a huge advantage in the run game and the pass game. What’s really hard for tackles is having to sit in there on a guy that’s really powerful.”

The Bears have crusaded and schemed to add bulk to Floyd, with some success. Acho and Lynch already have it, with Lynch possessed of a sack history that was the reason for the Bears’ pursuit of him.

“Aaron is one of these guys who’s become a ‘big’ man,” Staley said. Lynch played in college at 242. “The blessing we have with Aaron is that he can run; when he came out, was running 4.68, with really good change of direction. So he’s got an extremely good takeoff for a man that size.

“We really feel like he brings a dimension to our team that we’re excited about. He’s a guy that can [win] all three [ways: power, speed, hands].

“A guy like Leonard can beat you outside, he can run, can beat you with hands, and then because he has so much speed, his power is going to come [off that speed]. And he’s only 25 years old, a guy with a lot in his body. He’s primed to have a really good run here in Chicago.”