Aaron Lynch

Wide Receiver Anthony Miller returns to Bears practice for first time since training camp

Wide Receiver Anthony Miller returns to Bears practice for first time since training camp

The Bears got some good news on Monday, as wide receiver Anthony Miller (and outside linebacker Aaron Lynch) returned to practice in limited roles. 

It was the first time since the team broke camp in Bourbonnais that either had practiced, with Miller nursing an ankle sprain and Lynch dealing with an elbow injury. 

Miller led the Bears in touchdown catches last season, though a recurring shoulder injury limited his production in the second half. He finished 2018 with 33 receptions for 423 yards while averaging 12.8 yards per reception. The second-year receiver out of Memphis now has his work cut out for him before the season kicks off on September 5th. 

"When he’s on the field, he’s a playmaker," Matt Nagy said on Monday. "He can make plays. He’s a weapon for us. But we right now, just having him out the last several weeks, we’ve got to make sure he stays inside that playbook and he understands the details of this offense. That’s our focus - making sure he does that. Once you do that in the game, then your volume of plays starts to go up a little bit." 

Miller conceded that there were some minor setbacks with the ankle injury that he suffered in Bourbonnais, but was confident he'd be ready for Week 1. 

"I know everything’s going to click because we work so hard just to make things are right," Miller said. "We also go over things during meetings, so it’s not just on the field. Our chemistry I think is going to be on point this year.”

Miller also mentioned that he continues to do rehab on his shoulder to keep its strength up. That work is more of a continual process, however, and he noted that the area was pain-free. 

With Aaron Lynch back, Bears will continue to look for creative ways to generate pass rush

With Aaron Lynch back, Bears will continue to look for creative ways to generate pass rush

In the middle of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro first year with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley made an eyebrow-raising comment with an glimpse on the future. 

“As a great rusher, you want to be able to be put in either side in some of our three-down stuff, being able to play him in the middle some,” Staley said. “The more he gets confident in our scheme, the more we’re going to be able to do with him.” 

The point of Staley’s comment was Mack hadn’t fully realized what he could do in Vic Fangio’s defense. Without the benefit of OTAs, minicamps or training camp — Mack practiced with the Bears for the first time six days before the season opener — Fangio and Staley were reticent to move Mack around much within their scheme. 

Of course, this is a moot point now, with Fangio (and Staley) now with the Denver Broncos. The Bears expect Mack, like everyone else, to report to Halas Hall when their offseason program begins April 15. Even in a new scheme, though, chances are Mack will be moved around more in Chuck Pagano’s scheme. The goal would be to make it more difficult for opposing teams to gameplan for Mack. 

But within that structure, the Bears still needed some backup behind Mack and Leonard Floyd. That was addressed on Monday with the move to re-sign Aaron Lynch on a one-year deal, retaining a solid, edge-setting player who performed admirably as a backup/rotational piece in 2018. 

Lynch will play an important role in 2019, provided he can stay healthy, given Mack and Floyd can’t play every snap (Floyd played about 75 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2018; in Mack’s 14 games, he played 83 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps). But in terms of how the Bears generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, things may look a little different under Pagano even if the personnel is largely similar to what it was under Fangio. 

Pace hinted as much when discussing the Bears’ edge rushing depth last week at the NFL Annual Meeting in Arizona, six days before Lynch was brought back. 

“So you talk about Isaiah Irving or Kylie Fitts and those guys coming on as young players, and even talking to Matt and coach Pagano about that, it’s on us to develop our younger players,” Pace said. “And we have to do that to get better. Especially pass rusher, we’re looking to add more and more. But I think if you look at our D-line depth and that can add to some of that too. 

“A guy like Roy Robertson-Harris, there are a lot of creative things we can do with him too. So it’s not just the outside linebackers. The pass rush and front in general, we feel pretty good about.”

Pace’s comment about Robertson-Harris was interesting, though we’ll see how that plays out in OTAs and training camp. But Pagano is likely to be more aggressive with sending blitzes than Fangio: When Pagano was the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator eight years ago, he called on average about 14 blitzes per game, per Pro Football Focus. The 2018 Bears averaged about nine blitzes per game. The Bears have some players — like Roquan Smith (five sacks in 2018) — who could be effective in a more aggressive blitzing role. 

The other factor in all these pass rushing efforts is Pagano himself. He hasn’t been a defensive coordinator since 2011, and spent 2018 out of coaching. That’s led to him being “hungry,” as coach Matt Nagy observed. 

“He’s in the office longer than anybody, the times that I’m around,” Nagy said. “He’s just in there grinding on tape. He’s passionate, and you feel it. Now it’s going to be his job — and it’s going to be easy — to have that defense feel that. And then the X’s and O’s part, that’s not as hard as you guys think. For these guys, once they come in and feel it and see what he’s all about, they’re going to trust what he’s doing. And then it’s just going to be a matter of going out and letting it loose.”

Bears grades and needs: Tough decisions loom on edge rushing depth

Bears grades and needs: Tough decisions loom on edge rushing depth

2018 depth chart

1. Khalil Mack
Usage: 14 games, 71.2 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $22.3 million cap hit 

Mack’s salary cap hit accounts for 11.6 percent of the Bears’ 2019 cap, and he’s worth every single penny and every single percentage point of it. His individual impact was spectacular: 12 1/2 sacks, 73 total pressures, six forced fumbles, one interception, one touchdown.

And because of that production, his impact on the rest of the Bears’ defense was massive. He was the missing piece to take this defense from good to great. His quiet swagger meshed well within the Bears’ locker room, too. The two first-round picks the Bears sent to the Raiders are less valuable (No. 24 in 2019) in part because of what Mack did, and is expected to keep doing, in Chicago. 

Going forward, the Bears could convert some of Mack’s 2019 salary into a signing bonus, spreading that money out over the next few years to give them some relief this year. Using $10 million to retain, say, Bryce Callahan or fill out the depth chart would go a long way when the Bears only have about $12 million in cap space right now. It would impact the team’s cap in 2020 and beyond, but if the goal is maximize Mitch Trubisky’s rookie contract, it would make sense. 

2. Leonard Floyd
Usage: 16 games, 75.4 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $5,021,819 cap hit

Floyd was two things last year: 1) Disappointing, production-wise and 2) Absolutely worthy of having his fifth-year option exercised. 

A hand injury suffered in a mid-August preseason game against the Denver Broncos limited Floyd for around two months, to the point where former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio admitted the team probably rushed Floyd back and put too much on his plate while he was still recovering. It showed in his production: Floyd didn’t have a sack and only totaled four pressures in the Bears’ first seven games of the season, then had 32 pressures and four sacks over the final nine games. 

Floyd deserves credit for playing well against the run, and he did notch the Bears’ only sack of Nick Foles in the wild card loss to the Eagles. But drawing single-teams thanks to Mack’s presence on the other side of the line didn’t lead to the massively productive season hoped for when the Raiders bizarrely decided to trade one of the best pass rushers in the league to the Bears. 

Still, the Bears have to bet on Floyd moving forward. He’s still cheap in 2019, and while his salary will significantly increase in 2020 it’s a gamble well worth taking to see if the former top-10 pick can fulfill his potential. 

"He played well and we're happy where he's at," general manager Ryan Pace said. "I feel like Leonard is still doing this (indicating upward trajectory) and I think you felt that as the season was going on."

3. Aaron Lynch 
Usage: 13 games, 33.6 percent of defensive snaps, 3.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Lynch rewarded the Bears’ one-year prove-it deal by playing in 13 games (his most since 2015) with three sacks, four tackles for a loss and one interception. He was strong against the run, too, though his season ended early after Week 15 due to an elbow injury. 

There are a few things to consider as Lynch moves toward free agency: First, durability has been an issue in his career, and he did miss nearly all of training camp. His best years in the NFL have come under the watch of now-former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, too. 

But edge rushing depth is difficult to find, especially for cheap. Lynch may look for a bit of a pay raise off the $4 million deal he signed last year, but it may not be significant enough to make it necessarily prohibitive for the Bears. Still, the best bet is Lynch won’t be back, though if Pace likes him enough — or isn’t enamored with other options — he could be. 

4. Sam Acho
Usage: 4 games, 2.6 percent of defensive snaps, 8.5 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $2.375 million cap hit

The Bears will have a tough decision coming on Acho, a well liked and highly respected figure inside Halas Hall who played well in 2017 both on defense and special teams, but missed 12 games last season after suffering a pec injury in Week 4. The Bears could save $2.125 million in cap space by releasing Acho, though they could attempt to bring him back on a cheaper deal. 

All the community work around Chicago Acho has committed himself to would make him an especially tough cut for the team. Then again, a little under $3 million isn’t a bad price to pay for a reserve edge rusher, one who did have three sacks two years ago. So again, a tough decision is coming here. 

5. Isaiah Irving
Usage: 13 games, 11 percent of defensive snaps, 43.8 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Part of the Bears’ decisions on Lynch and Acho will depend on their evaluations of Irving and Kylie Fitts moving forward. Irving played in 10 games last year with eight pressures and one sack, and to date the former undrafted free agent has mostly flashed in the preseason. It’s worth noting the Bears would’ve gone into 2018 with Irving having a bigger part of their edge rushing rotation had they not traded for Mack. 

6. Kylie Fitts 
Usage: 6 games, 5.5 percent of defensive snaps, 5.9 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $613,050 cap hit

Fitts was tabbed as a possible sleeper after he tested well at the NFL combine but fell to the sixth round of last year’s draft. A good rule of thumb with edge rushers, though: Productive players at that position rarely last until the sixth round. Over the last five years, no sixth or seventh round outside linebacker has more than 3 1/2 sacks in their entire career. 

7. James Vaughters
Usage: 16 games with Calgary Stampeders in CFL
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Vaughters had five sacks with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL in 2018, and the Chicago native and Stanford alum will try to make the jump to the NFL with the Bears in OTAs/minicamp/training camp. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 7

The Bears have a number of questions to address with their depth behind Mack and Floyd, and would do well to target this position in the draft. But again: It’s hard to find quality edge rushers without a first- or second-round pick, and the Bears may not be sold on anyone with their third-round pick. Signing an inexpensive veteran and taking another flier on a later-round draft pick may be the route here. 

Previous grades and needs: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | OL | DL

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