By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) Down the stretch run of another lost season for the Bears, second-year linebacker Leonard Floyd was left with only the film and hopes for what he can bring to the table.
Floyd suffered a season-ending knee injury in November and was placed on injured reserve. As his team struggled in its final games and the defense wasn’t quite as effective, Floyd would watch the film and envision himself playing instead of the replacements brought in, imagining himself making the plays that were missed.
“I tried to stay as close to football as I could,” Floyd said as he cleaned out his locker earlier this month.
The Bears’ first-round pick in 2016, Floyd has played in 22 of 32 games in his first two NFL seasons and recorded 11.5 sacks. He was drafted as a raw prospect out of Georgia with the hopes he could become an effective edge rusher at this level.
Floyd, 25, has shown flashes of potential mixed with many areas to improve. He’s the most important piece to a position so critical for Vic Fangio’s defense yet still an uncertainty entering this 2018 season.
The future at outside linebacker for the Bears begins with Floyd and consists of other questions. After retaining Fangio as defensive coordinator, general manager Ryan Pace must move to ensure talent at outside linebacker.
Last season, the Bears finished tied for seventh in the league with 42 sacks, though only 18.5 of those came from the position of outside linebacker. Floyd’s 4.5 led that position group. It wasn’t a good enough effort in the minds of the Bears. Once the injuries stacked up late in the season, the Bears lost their quality rush off the edge.
Veteran Pernell McPhee faces some unknowns this offseason after three injury-plagued seasons. It would require just $1 million in dead cap for the Bears to release him and find a more effective replacement. Another veteran, Willie Young, is entering the final year of his contract and should expect to play a key role in 2018 after suffering a torn triceps muscle last October.
Following the injury to Floyd, the Bears claimed Lamarr Houston — whom they released in September — off waivers, a move indicative of the team’s issues at outside linebacker. The 30-year-old Houston managed four sacks in five games in the second stint with the Bears and could stick around if so desired.
The Bears have received steady play from reserve Sam Acho and have hopes for the potential of undrafted rookie Isaiah Irving, who also finished the season injured reserve. However, for a defense looking to find impact players, more is needed at outside linebacker.
Pace must first identify which players to subtract before making more additions. Come free agency, DeMarcus Lawrence is set to become the top available edge rusher, though the Cowboys would be wise to retain his services. Ezekiel Ansah would be a tremendous addition, though he has endured injury issues each of the last two seasons.
There are some interesting players available in the first round of the NFL Draft in April. Would the Bears be willing to trade down from their No. 8 slot to maximize needs? Names like North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb and Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo are worth keeping an eye on. It’s worth wondering how Pace will prioritize outside linebacker compared to a position like wide receiver by April.
What’s more likely is that Pace will count on the scouting prowess of his front office and look beyond Day 1 for potential fits to the defense.
Whatever the path, the Bears need to find proven, reliable rushers to ensure Fangio’s defense can function at its best.