By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) The position of outside linebacker certainly didn’t project to be a great need for the Bears a year ago. In fact, one could’ve argued it to be among their greatest strengths.
Leonard Floyd had flashed enough promise his rookie season of 2016 to inspire hope for 2017 and beyond. Pernell McPhee had hoped to be completely healthy for training camp. Willie Young had been signed to a contract extension with productivity to his name. Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho offered valuable depth.
Acho was the only man to make it through a full 16-game slate as attrition took its toll on the group. Floyd (knee), McPhee (knee) and Young (triceps) all landed on injured reserve, while Houston was released before the season opener before later being brought back.
Now, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has some work ahead of him in ensuring the right group of edge rushers for 2018 and beyond.
Slated to return: Leonard Floyd, 25; Pernell McPhee, 29; Willie Young, 32; Isaiah Irving, 23; Howard Jones, 28.
The Bears breathed a sigh of relief when it was revealed that Floyd’s knee injury wasn’t a torn ACL. That was the fear after what appeared to be a devastating injury suffered during a loss to the Lions in November. Instead, Floyd is expected to be ready for training camp.
Floyd finished his second season with just 4.5 sacks in four games but was playing at a high level before his injury. The Bears are eager to continue their development of Floyd, who has shown signs of what he can be as an NFL edge rusher.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether McPhee will be a part of the Bears moving forward. McPhee missed nine games during his first two seasons in a Bears uniform dealing with an injury to his left knee, which included starting the 2016 campaign on the physically-unable-to-perform list. The ailment lingered throughout much of the season.
McPhee arrived for the 2017 season feeling healthy and ready to contribute when a training camp physical revealed an irregularity in his right knee, which had been injured during his time in Baltimore. McPhee missed three games last season and started just five, playing much of the year on a snap count.
Now 29, McPhee initially signed a five-year deal worth up to $38.8 million and $15.5 million guaranteed. Even defensive coordinator Vic Fangio conceded last season that it’s not fair to expect McPhee to be the same player moving forward with two repaired knees. That’s something for Pace to consider this offseason.
Young has been mostly healthy during his time with the Bears, but a triceps tear ended his 2017 season. He’s entering a contract year with the team and should continue to work into the rotation at outside linebacker. During a full 16-game season in 2016, Young posted 7.5 sacks, his best total since switching over from 4-3 defensive end.
Irving made an impression on the Bears as an undrafted rookie but suffered a season-ending knee injury during a December practice. Jones was added to the roster midseason, playing in four contests and recording a sack.
With Floyd and Irving the only two outside linebackers younger than 28, the Bears will need to find younger, more effective options to rush off the edge.
Set for free agency: Sam Acho (UFA), 29; Lamarr Houston (UFA), 30.
The Bears face decisions on Acho and Houston, both considered depth players at outside linebacker.
Acho has been a reliable player for the Bears, though he’s better suited as a reserve and special teams player. Houston was released by Chicago with an injury settlement days prior to the 2017 season opener. He landed with the Texans for five games before returning to the Bears for five more. After he was claimed off waivers, Houston posted four sacks in his final five games for Chicago.
After Floyd was lost for the season, the Bears were left relying on the defensive line to generate a rush. Houston and Acho filled in well, but the pass rush wasn’t the same without its most effective edge rushers.
The Bears are excited for the prospect of Floyd being fully healthy by training camp, but who will work on the opposite edge as the full-time starter?
DeMarcus Lawrence and Ziggy Ansah are slated to lead the free-agent market of edge rushers, and both should be in demand. Alex Okafor and Kony Ealy are also among the players the Bears could explore who perhaps have some untapped potential.
Perhaps the Bears will also look to the NFL Draft, where they hold the eighth overall pick. Players to watch in that regard are Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or UT-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport.
The Bears were fortunate to retain Fangio as defensive coordinator. Another effective edge rusher would be a nice reward to enhance his defense.