Sam Acho

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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Bears players back Matt Nagy's decision to rest them: 'That's the type of coach you want on your side'

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USA Today Sports Images

Bears players back Matt Nagy's decision to rest them: 'That's the type of coach you want on your side'

Bears players felt like coach Matt Nagy had their collective back when he decided to bench most of his team’s starters for Saturday’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. So on Monday, those starters who didn’t play had Nagy’s back when discussing their first-year coach’s bold, unorthodox play. 

“Just because we’ve been doing it for a long time doesn’t mean it’s right, just because it’s what most NFL teams do doesn’t mean it’s the right way of thinking,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “I love what coach Nagy’s approach is. He’s thinking, what’s best for my team? What’s best for the Bears? He’s not thinking, what does everybody else do? Or what would make me look good in front of my players or the coaches or the media? He’s not thinking that way. He’s thinking, what is going to help us beat Green Bay? And so I trust him.”

A few things about not playing resonated with the guys who were relegated to the sidelines for the traditionally “all-important” dress rehearsal preseason game. First and foremost, even if some players wanted to play, the collective feeling was that Nagy had their best interests in mind. 

“I was happy just about his approach,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “In the preseason you get little nicks and bruises that carry on through the regular season. I felt like it was a smart move on his part, the way the game is changing. It makes his players look at him like he really cares about us.”

Said running back Tarik Cohen: “He doesn’t care about what everybody else is going to think. He’s just looking out for our best interests and the team’s best interest, and that’s the type of coach you want on your side.”

Some players who were here a year ago were quick to point out wide receiver Cameron Meredith’s season-ending knee injury suffered in 2017’s third preseason game, while others made note of Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Marqise Lee suffering a season-ending knee injury over the weekend. Lee’s former teammate, Allen Robinson, certainly did. 

“For me, for that being one of my close friends, that was very tough to see,” Robinson said. “… At the end of the day, like I said before, coach Nagy has the best interests for us players and this team. I think at the end of the day, whenever you can try to take certain precautions or whatever, I think that was in the best interests.”

Offensive lineman Kyle Long brought up Lee in making a point about the importance of preseason game snaps, too.

“I think you’d be crazy to say I want to play more reps of meaningless football,” Long said. “Until they start passing for wins and losses, it’s an opportunity for the younger guys and the backups to have their opportunity to make the team. Unfortunately you saw with Marqise Lee and guys like that … I think that answers your question. It’s kind of pointless.”

That’s not to say all of the guys who didn’t play on Saturday didn’t want to play. Some of them did, Cohen said, but more important was that Nagy’s decision was respected. 

How not playing on Saturday impacts the Bears’ readiness for Sept. 9’s curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay remains to be seen, though players didn’t believe sitting out will have a negative impact. If anything, it might’ve provided a little extra motivation among these players to prove their coach right. 

“I feel like it was the right move,” Trevathan said. “It’s our job to make it the best move for him.”

Whatever Bears do for National Anthem, it’ll be in the spotlight before Hall of Fame Game

Whatever Bears do for National Anthem, it’ll be in the spotlight before Hall of Fame Game

CANTON, Ohio -- Update: All Bears players, coaches and team personnel stood and linked arms during the playing of the National Anthem. No Ravens players appeared to protest during the anthem, either. 

Bears players, as of their final practice before leaving for Canton on Tuesday, hadn’t come to a decision on what they’ll do when the National Anthem is played before Thursday night’s Hall of Fame Game. Whatever members of the team do, though, it’ll be in the national spotlight given tonight represents the first NFL game played since the Anthem issue barged back into the league’s headlines this spring.

The NFL last month put a freeze on the National Anthem resolution it adopted in May, which required all team personnel on the field to stand and “show respect” for the anthem. Anyone who was on the field and not standing would be subject to fines from the league and the team for which they play; those who wish to protest were told to remain in the locker room for the playing of the anthem. With the decision to freeze that resolution — which the league announced jointly with the NFLPA — there is no policy in place on how team personnel are expected to act during the National Anthem.

Bears linebacker Sam Acho, the team’s NFLPA rep and the most outspoken member of the organization on the National Anthem and social justice issues, said on Tuesday he wasn’t sure if he and his teammates would continue to stand and link arms during the anthem, as they did in 2017 following President Donald Trump’s explosive comments and tweets on the matter.

“Yeah. It’s really hard,” Acho said. “I’m not going to lie to you guys. It’s really, really hard, and it could be confusing at times, on how do you find an answer? How do you get a solution? Because not everyone has the same beliefs. Not everyone has the same experiences. Not everyone has the same skin color. Not everyone has the same religious background. Not everyone has the same sexual orientation.

“We come from so many different backgrounds and experiences, so it’s going to be hard to figure out one solution that fits everyone. But the great thing about a team is when you do something for your brothers, you’re doing it for yourself. And so even if you don’t believe wholeheartedly in some issue, you believe in your teammates, so you do it for your teammates. Even if you don’t agree or you haven’t experienced some pain that someone else has experienced, you believe in them, so you do it for them.

“You cry with them. I’ve cried with these guys. I’ve shed tears with these guys. I’ve been places with these guys. I’ve done life with these guys. So it’s going to be hard to figure out one solution that fits everyone, but I think the beauty of it is that when you come together and you put your own, I’ll call them selfish desires, behind you and say I’m going to do it for the betterment of the team, I think that’s when real growth and real change happens.”

Those on the Bears who’ve spoken on the anthem issue have all said whatever action is taken will be done as a team, as Acho outlined above. But a one-size-fits-all policy will be difficult to come to for 53 players in Week 1, let alone for the 90 guys on this roster for Thursday night.

Still, as those within the organization discussed what will be done during the National Anthem Thursday night, coach Matt Nagy said he’s confident in whatever decision is made.

“I feel really, really good with where we’re at,” Nagy said. “I feel comfortable  and I know this, whatever we do, we’re going to do it together.

“… It’s everybody (discussing it). It’s collectively. That’s how we do things around here. I think that’s the best way. Me personally, that’s my opinion. And I know everybody else feels that way. And that’s what makes it really easy for so many of us to understand that and feel good. We talk about a family type atmosphere in this organization and I think you’ll see that.”

Whatever the Bears and Baltimore Ravens do during the National Anthem, though, will be noticeable in one way or another. Will the president tweet about it? Perhaps.

But no matter what, this is a topic that isn’t going away, especially as long as long as the NFL keeps stumbling through solutions that don’t appease anyone on either side of this divisive issue.

“I tell everybody, everybody has their own opinion,” Nagy said. “Specifically, everybody is right and everybody is somewhat wrong. There is no correct answer. But as long as you talk it through and you do it peacefully and you understand that, then you realize what is out there. And that as long as you recognize that, you talk it through and you try to help out.

“So I feel really good with where we’re at. I feel good myself. And then again, I think, if you talk to a lot of coaches, they’re not putting it aside. But we have a responsibility with this team right now. We’re trying to get this team right to win football games. And so right now, with all due respect, that’s really what we’re focused on.”