Isaiah Irving

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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Training Camp Battles: Will Sam Acho, Aaron Lynch hold off Isaiah Irving at OLB?

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USA Today

Training Camp Battles: Will Sam Acho, Aaron Lynch hold off Isaiah Irving at OLB?

The Chicago Bears are banking on Leonard Floyd to break out as a superstar pass rusher in 2018, expectations that are reasonable considering his first-round pedigree. But even if Floyd becomes an elite sack artist this season, the Bears' defense won't reach its maximum potential without a complementary player emerging opposite him.

It's still very early in the process of identifying who that guy might be, but after last Thursday's Hall of Fame Game, Isaiah Irving can't be overlooked. Irving is in a training camp battle with veterans Sam Acho and Aaron Lynch as well as rookie Kylie Fitts for reps at outside linebacker.

Irving appeared in seven games last season after starting the year on the practice squad. His season was cut short on December 2, 2017, when he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Still, Irving's rookie year should be deemed a successful one.

He joined the Bears as an undrafted free agent from San Jose State and had a strong showing in the 2017 preseason. He worked his way to the active roster last October and has gotten off to a fast start this summer.

Irving was the Bears' best pass rusher in the Hall of Fame Game, per Pro Football Focus. His 70.1 pass rush grade edged Fitts' 69.2, both of whom registered a sack. But it was Irving who looked much more explosive off the snap. He flashed a more refined set of pass-rush moves, too.

The fact that Lynch is still sitting out of practice with a hamstring injury has given Irving a great opportunity to prove that he is Chicago's next-best pass rusher. Acho is the most likely candidate to begin the season as a starter, but keep an eye on Irving. If he stacks a few productive preseason games together, especially when opponents' starters are on the field, he could emerge as the guy Vic Fangio pegs as the Robin to Floyd's Batman.

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

The Bears have found success in the undrafted free agent market with the likes of wide receiver Cameron Meredith, linebacker Christian Jones and safety Harold Jones-Quartey among others during GM Ryan Pace's tenure with the club. 

Pace and the Bears hope to continue that trend and uncover some hidden gems in this year's crop of undrafted free agents.

Ahead of rookie minicamp this weekend, the Bears announced on Thursday they have signed 13 undrafted free agents.

Here's a look at some of the notable UDFA's the Bears signed:

Tanner Gentry (WR), Wyoming: The 6-foot-2 wideout ran a 4.40-yard dash at his Pro Day and had 72 catches for 1,326 yards with 14 touchdowns for the Cowboys last season. Gentry also led the country in deep targets (49) last season.

Dieugot Joseph (OT), Florida International: After a switch from defensive end to the offensive line, Joseph became a stalwart at left tackle for the Panthers. Joseph was named honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2016.

Andy Phillips (K), Utah: A former member of the United States National Ski Team, Phillips walked on to the Utah football team in 2012. As the Utes starting kicker from 2013-16, Phillips converted 84 percent of field goals and missed just one extra point.

Freddie Stevenson (FB), Florida State: For three seasons Stevenson served as the lead blocker for All-American running back Dalvin Cook. A former four-star recruit as a linebacker, Stevenson had 292 total yards and seven touchdowns with the Seminoles.

Kermit Whitfield (WR), Florida State: One of the most explosive athletes in the country, Whitfield accumulated 2,386 yards as a kick returner at Florida State. Whitfield broke the ACC record for yards per return (36.4) during his freshman season.

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Jhajuan Seales (WR), Oklahoma State: Seales has the ability to climb the ladder and make the contested catches with a 41.5-inch vertical leap. After subpar sophomore and junior seasons, Seales rebounded as a senior with 37 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns.

Franko House (TE), Ball State: House was a standout basketball player for the Cardinals. House will use his 6-foot-6, 247-pound frame to make the transition to the gridiron after not playing the sport since his senior year of high school.

Joel Bouagnon (RB), Northern Illinois: The ex-Huskies running back couldn't quite replicate his junior year numbers, but still posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry with nine total touchdowns in 2016.

Rashaad Coward (DL), Old Dominion: Coward was a second-team All Conference USA selection last season, finishing with 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Coward fits the Bears 3-4 base defense as somebody who could rotate either inside or outside on the defensive line.

Mitchell Kirsch (OL), James Madison: Kirsch was the starter at right tackle for the Dukes since 2014, and was named an FCS All-American last year.

Hendrick Ekpe (LB), Minnesota: Ekpe started 11 games for the Gophers and notched 28 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Ekpe played defensive end at Minnesota, but with his size (6-foot3, 245 pounds) he'll play outside linebacker for the Bears.

Isaiah Irving (LB), San Jose State: The 6-foot-3, 255 pound Irving led San Jose State with seven sacks as a senior.

Alex Searce (LB), Coastal Carolina: Searce was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan National Defensive Player of the Year Award. He had eight sacks for the Chanticleers in 2016.

Below are some standout players who have been invited to rookie minicamp:

Denard Robinson (RB): The artist formerly known as "Shoelace" from his days as a quarterback at Michigan is one several veterans that will try to impress the Bears' brass at rookie minicamp this weekend. Robinson was used as an "offensive weapon" during his four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2013-2016) and accumulated 1,058 rushing yards, 310 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.

Tyler Gaffney (RB): The former Stanford star will be at rookie minicamp for the Bears after he was released by the New England Patriots in March. Gaffney, originally a sixth-round selection by the Patriots in 2014, spent the majority of the last three seasons on injured reserve. During his season year at Stanford, Gaffney started 14 games and had 1,709 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

Titus Davis (WR): Davis, a standout wide receiver at Wheaton South High School, is the older brother of Tennessee Titans' 2017 first-round selection Corey Davis. Titus Davis played at Central Michigan from 2011-2014 and registered 204 receptions for 3,700 yards and 37 touchdowns. 

D.J. Johnson (TE), Kansas State: Johnson joins House as one of two college basketball players the Bears will have in rookie minicamp. Johnson averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game with the Wildcats in 2016-17 and helped the team to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson was an All-Conference defensive end and tight end at Parkway North High School in St. Louis.

Mark Spelman (OL), Illinois State: Spelman was one of the key members of the Redbirds offensive line last season and garnered third-team All-American honors.

D'Nerius Antoine (S), Southern Mississippi: A two-year starter for the Golden Eagles, Antoine had 189 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions and 10 passes defended. Antoine also has experience as a returner.

DeSean Smith (TE), LSU: Smith wasn't often utlized in the Tigers passing game, ending his collegiate career with 19 receptions for 346 yards and one touchdown.

Lance Lenoir (WR), Western Illinois: Lenoir, a high school teammate of 2016 Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Laquon Treadwell at Crete Monee, finished his Leathernecks career as the school's all-time leader in receptions (273), yards (3,796) and touchdowns (28).