By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Comfortably settled into his new home, Bears first-round pick Leonard Floyd looked poised as he grew accustomed to Halas Hall. He was ever so confident as he readied to work.
In late April, Floyd became the Bears’ investment, a curious selection at No. 9 overall among many can’t-miss options. It seemed the Bears couldn’t go wrong with their 11th slot in the draft, then they moved up two places to take the raw linebacker out of Georgia, raising many eyebrows.
Put aside the fact that Floyd’s slender frame hardly filled his new suit the day he was introduced at Halas Hall, and there wasn’t eye-popping production in the SEC — largely due to a versatile role in the defense. The Bears took a risk on a prospect they truly trust.
“They have faith in me,” Floyd said. “I’ll do whatever I can to not let them down — to exceed my expectations.”
OTAs in Lake Forest are nearing, and this revamped Bears roster will begin working itself into a crowded depth chart. The position of outside linebacker in coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense provides many questions, with none bigger than Floyd.
The Bears drafted Floyd to line up opposite Pernell McPhee as their new edge rusher. First, he must work through countless alarm clocks that remind him to eat, following a team nutritional program focused on bulking up.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a play or two every game where you’re going to say, ‘Jeez, he’s not heavy enough’ or ‘he’s too light,’” Fangio said of Floyd. “Hopefully, there will be a few plays every game, too, that we say, ‘Well, jeez, we didn’t have anybody who could have done that in the past.’”
Even if Floyd adds size, he’s still not a certainty to start in 2016. Veterans Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are entering their third seasons in Chicago, with their Bears tenures marred with difficulty. Both were brought in by former general manager Phil Emery to play the role of a 4-3 edge rusher, then were shifted along with Jared Allen to 3-4 outside linebacker.
Houston tore his ACL in late October 2014 in an embarrassing celebration injury after his first sack. Young tore his Achillies late in the same season. Both lost an important 2015 offseason that would’ve created a natural transition to the new defense and role, and both will have that luxury this offseason. Still, Houston and Young led the Bears in sacks last season, while Allen was dealt to Carolina after he never fit in for Fangio.
Entering 2016, Houston and Young are the Bears’ wild cards at edge rusher. Either could be traded to make room on the depth chart. Bears general manager Ryan Pace has shown he’s not afraid to make difficult cuts, and both could be considered as valuable as Matt Slauson would’ve been for the Bears. Slauson was cut the day after the draft, with the Bears believing second-round pick Cody Whitehair can progress enough to start at left guard.
Neither Houston or Young played a role in special teams last season, something that gives fellow linebacker Sam Acho a fair chance at making the roster. Acho started seven games last season, though he never recorded a sack. He faces an uphill battle to be more than a special teams standout, barring a move of Houston or Young.
Additionally, the Bears signed a coveted undrafted free agent, outside linebacker Roy Robertson-Harris, who’s looking to make his mark on the defense in addition to special teams.
“They’re bringing an athletic, fast, hard-working player,” Robertson-Harris said. “I’m going to do whatever a coach asks me to do.”
Fangio must determine how he wants the rotation at outside linebacker, plus who just doesn’t fit what he wants.
The only certainty for the Bears at outside linebacker is McPhee, the 27-year-old who signed a five-year deal last offseason. When healthy, the only way to often stop McPhee was mugging him and hoping the referees weren’t watching.
McPhee battled a knee injury during the second half of the season and managed just one sack in the final nine weeks, missing two games along the way. He had 33 tackles and five sacks in the first seven games, with Pro Football Focus calling him one of the NFL’s premier edge rushers.
The Bears can hope that McPhee’s health isn’t once a concern in 2016 and that his power can complement the speed threat of Floyd. The two have the potential to play off each other well in Fangio’s defense.
Drafting Floyd meant the Bears’ defense would be faster, and that could help McPhee be even better.
“We’ve said all along that we wanted to improve the athleticism and speed on our defense, and we’ve definitely done that with Leonard Floyd,” Pace said.
Moving forward, Pace must decide if he wants to run three deep at each outside linebacker position. Yet another move could be in the works for the Bears.
The Bears have depth at outside linebacker, but, eventually, the confident Floyd will have to earn his keep and prove he can produce. Time will tell how soon that is.