By Chris Emma–

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — As the Bears continue their attempt at establishing a defensive identity, linebacker Pernell McPhee continues to work off to the side through what is presumed to be the final stages of a lengthy rehab process from a knee operation.

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While McPhee hasn’t yet donned his No. 92 practice jersey, he’s moving well and without a limp, looking like he’s close to a return — at least from a distance. His procedure to repair a damaged left knee was thought to be routine, but that scope occurred six months ago and he remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list here in the preseason.

For context, Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller had a knee scope two weeks ago and the hope is that he can be ready for Week 1. So what’s the next step for McPhee?

“We’ve some avenues that we’re going to have to decide here as we cut down to the (active 53-man roster) and some time from now, so I don’t like making those decisions now,” Bears coach John Fox said. “But we’ll continue, like I said, to evaluate him. There are options. He did start the season on PUP. We have a lot of options, and we’ll do what’s best for us and him.”

The Bears’ time to make a decision is ticking. The 27-year-old McPhee can be activated off the PUP list anytime until the final 53-man roster is set Saturday. If he opens the regular season on the PUP list, he’ll have to sit out at least the first six weeks. The question of what to do with him looms as one of the biggest at Halas Hall.

The Bears have remained relatively quiet about his status, and Fox is notably unspecific when pressed for details on injuries.

“With me, I don’t like putting timelines, but I think he’s closer than he was last week,” Fox said.

Due to the Bears’ media policy, the injured McPhee hasn’t been made available for comment and won’t until he’s healthy enough to practice. McPhee played through the knee pain for most of last season, which limited his effectiveness, particularly in the second half of the season.

In his first full season as a starter, McPhee had six sacks — but just one in the final nine weeks. He missed two games while nursing the injury. When playing 16 games with Baltimore in 2014, McPhee had 7.5 sacks, even without once making a start.

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Teammates see McPhee each day of work. They also watched how effective he was when healthy. At times, it seemed like the only way to slow down McPhee was to hold him.

The Bears defense misses McPhee, a player asked to lead their pass rush.

“Just the physical mentality he brings to the game,” Bears outside linebacker Willie Young said. “It’s been a grind since his first day out, busting his tail. And it’s a credit to him, because to bounce back from any what used to be career-ending injuries is a challenge. But he’s on course, I would say.”

Fortunately for the Bears, their depth at outside linebacker is fine, serving as one of the team’s strengths. If McPhee remains out, Young and Lamarr Houston — each of whom returned from knee injuries last season and led the team in sacks — project to line up as the starters. First-round pick Leonard Floyd should rotate in, too, and Sam Acho provides needed depth in addition to a key special teams role.

Time is ticking away for McPhee, who has been slowly progressing. Of course, the Bears would prefer he doesn’t play through the pain again. That got him into this situation in the first place.

“You’re mindful of all of it,” Fox said. “It does come with the game.”

Translation: McPhee won’t return until the knee is completely ready to withstand the regular season. That leaves Week 1 — and perhaps more — in jeopardy.

Notes: Bears tight end Zach Miller and receiver Eddie Royal have both been medically cleared for contact after recovering from concussions, Fox said … Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks didn’t practice while tending to a personal matter, Fox said … Right guard Kyle Long (shoulder) once again sat out … Center/guard Ted Larsen missed practice with an illness.

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Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.