By Dan Durkin—
(CBS) Back in 2011, Bears coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio were preparing for new beginnings in Denver and San Francisco, respectively. Cognizant of the fundamental shift the NFL was making to becoming a passing league, these two defensive-minded coaches recognized the heightened importance of harassing the quarterback.
The Broncos went on to select Von Miller at No. 2 overall, while the 49ers selected Aldon Smith with the seventh pick. Fast forward five years, and as Fox and Fangio prepare for their second year together in Chicago, they were part of the brain trust that made Georgia edge rusher Leonard Floyd the Bear’s first-round draft pick Thursday evening.
This isn’t to say Floyd is Miller or Smith, not even remotely close. But the profile the Bears seek at the position is evident. Leverage, length, speed and twitch are the traits they covet.
The Bears used free agency to shore up a void they had along their defensive front. They strengthened the interior of their second level and got more bulk on the defensive line. Even with those additions, there were still glaring needs heading into the draft – specifically playmakers who can impact an opponent’s passing game. The Bears needed to get faster and more explosive.
When you put on Floyd’s tape, his athleticism is evident. Flexible hips allow him to dip his shoulder to get underneath a blocker. His fleet feet enable him to either bend the edge or cross a blocker’s face and take a shorter path to the quarterback. He uses his long levers to maintain separation and keep blockers at bay.
However, there are concerns that make Floyd a risky selection.
In 37 career games at Georgia, he registered only 17 sacks. Bears general manager Ryan Pace seems to believe locking Floyd into one position – which will be outside linebacker in Chicago – and getting him in the right situation will help up his production.
“When you watch the tape, they move him all over,” Pace said. “He’s such a versatile athlete. He’s playing inside linebacker one snap. Then the next snap, he’s playing nickel and he’s running down the field with a slot receiver. Then they rush him. You see him at all these different positions. I think, with him playing more of a pass rush position, he’ll have more production.”
The Bears certainly need that to be the case. Floyd was a consensus pick among team’s coaches and scouts, who felt strongly enough about him that they traded up two spots, giving up one of their two fourth-round selections (No. 106 overall) to the Bucs to move from No. 11 to No. 9.
Floyd’s upside is intriguing. This draft was thin on 3-4 edge rushers, and he was at or near the top of that list from a physical perspective. However, he must get functionally stronger to succeed. He struggles at times to disengage and missed tackles at the point of attack in run support when he was unable to drop a ball carrier on initial contact.
It’s nearly impossible to win consistently in the NFL by just running around a blocker with speed. Eventually you have to put your hands on someone to jar them and create a lane for yourself to move through.
Line play involves large men clashing, and the winner is the one who’s able to move someone against their will. Floyd elected not to bench at both the combine and his pro day, which allows teams to draw their own conclusions about his upper-body strength or lack thereof.
Floyd played around 225 pounds in college but bulked up to 244 at the combine. Pace feels the Bears and their sports science department will be able to get his body weight calibrated in the 240s without sacrificing his twitch and burst.
“John (Fox) always says this,” Pace said, “‘We can get him stronger. We can get him bigger. But we can’t get him faster and more athletic.’”
Commend Pace and the Bears for being bold with this pick. They identified a need on their roster, recognized the thin pool in the draft and moved up to get their guy. The need was obvious; now the Bears just have to hope that their convictions were right about what Floyd can become as a player.
Floyd’s a personnel development experiment, something that the Bears have historically struggled to do as a franchise.
If Fangio and outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt are right with their assessment and desire to take on a project like Floyd and mold him into the speed element off the edge that the defense is missing, the Bears will have succeeded with this pick. If not, Floyd will become another in a long line of prospects who were drafted early for being better athletes than football players.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.