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.”