Part 7 of an 11-part review of the 2017 Bears season.
Injuries were a prevailing factor in too many areas for the Bears in 2017, and no area on defense was hit harder than outside linebacker.
The Bears wound up using five starters at outside linebacker and one was one-time free-agent prize Lamarr Houston, who was part of final cuts in September but wound up getting brought back Nov. 29 because of a pressing need as four of the seven at the position eventually wound up on injured reserve.
It's a credit to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who oversaw the position group, that the unit remained as productive as it was. Leonard Floyd led the position with 4 1/2 sacks, which can't be what the Bears hoped for, but outside linebackers combined for 18 1/2 of the team's 42 sacks.
Fangio was forced to get creative at times in his pressure package when he lost the players needed to consistently get home off the edge. Once example was the occasional use of dime packages, not something Fangio turns to a whole lot, in which he would use one of the defensive backs (Sherrick McManis and DeAndre Houston-Carson filled this role) to blitz. In a perfect world, the Bears would have a 250-pound athlete with length and the ability to bend around the edge in that role, but sometimes you've got to make do with what you have and what the Bears were dealing with was a shortage of bodies.
Willie Young (Oct. 10), Floyd (Nov. 23), Isaiah Irving (Dec. 2) and Pernell McPhee (Dec. 20) all finished the season on injured reserve, and the position figures to get a makeover moving forward.
Roll call: Leonard Floyd (signed through 2019 with team option for 2020), Sam Acho (unrestricted free agent), Pernell McPhee (signed through 2019), Lamarr Houston (unrestricted free agent), Willie Young (signed through 2018), Isaiah Irving (signed through 2018), Howard Jones (signed through 2018).
2018 salary-cap figures: Floyd $4,304,417, McPhee $8.075 million, Young $5.4 million, Irving $555,000, Jones $705,000.
2017 season review: Not unlike during portions of his rookie year, the Bears were occasionally conflicted with what to do with the Ferrari in their pass rush. Floyd, the ninth overall pick in 2016, is easily the most gifted natural pass rusher on the roster with the speed, get-off at the snap, length and ability to bend around the edge and close the distance to the quarterback. But he was also the only outside linebacker on the roster athletic enough to comfortably drop into space and carry coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Floyd was in coverage for 68 of the 582 snaps he was on the field in 2017, meaning 11.7 percent of the time. That's the exact same percentage of snaps he spent in coverage as a rookie. While 68 isn't a high number, those are 68 opportunities to hunt down the quarterback that are taken away, and general manager Ryan Pace didn't trade up for Floyd to watch him cover tight ends or try to handle wide receivers on crossing routes or backs coming out of the backfield. Project that total over an entire season and Floyd would have been in coverage for roughly 109 snaps. He was drafted to become a premier edge rusher and after two seasons, Floyd hasn't yet achieved that stature. That's not to say he cannot get there, but I think it's fair to say he was still dealing with missing considerable camp and practice time as a rookie. From a matchup standpoint, Floyd was the best option in coverage and far better than McPhee and Young. Floyd finished with 34 tackles to rank 10th on the defense, and one of the real pluses to his season is he wasn't sidelined with a concussion. That had to be a concern for the Bears after Floyd revealed last summer that the late-season concussion he suffered in his rookie year affected him for an extended period. However, his season was truncated by injury again. During the Week 10 meeting with the Lions at Soldier Field, Floyd suffered injuries to the MCL and PCL in his right knee during a collision with cornerback Kyle Fuller. That led to surgery, and when we last saw Floyd, on locker cleanout day after the season ended, he was in a brace and using crutches. The team doesn't believe the injury will hinder Floyd's preparation for next season. The good news is Floyd had not missed a practice this season and through the first nine games he had been on the field for 90 percent of the snaps. After the injury, Floyd's snap total wound up ranking second for the position behind only Acho (639), and they were the only outside linebackers to be on the field for more than 37 percent of the action.
Acho, who was back with the Bears on a one-year contract for the third consecutive season, went from being a projected core special teams player to the guy Fangio wound up trusting the most. Acho was the only outside linebacker to compete in all 16 games, and his 12 starts were also tops for the position. He finished ninth on the roster with 40 tackles and added three sacks and a forced fumble. His playing time shot up to 639 snaps (60.4 percent), 140 more than he had the previous season. Acho was more active in the pass rush and was solid against the run. Acho was a replacement level player but was sound in the defense and with what he was asked to do and, therefore, was indispensable for Fangio as the injuries piled up.
McPhee, the premier free agent in Pace's first offseason in 2015, did what he could to remain on the field for 13 games with five starts before he was shut down with a shoulder injury. The recurring issue for McPhee has been knee injuries, and believe it or not he has missed only 10 games over the last two seasons. The Bears appreciate the edge that McPhee brings to the huddle, but he has been reduced to a part-time player and had more than 35 snaps in only four games while he had fewer than 20 snaps in three of the games he appeared in. McPhee was a little clunky when he came out of Mississippi State and when he played for the Ravens but was able to play at a high level because of his strength, toughness and instincts. He's far clunkier now because of the knee issues — he underwent microfracture surgery after the 2015 season — and the investment probably cannot be justified moving forward. McPhee made 21 tackles with four sacks, five tackles for a loss and two passes defended in 385 snaps (36.4 percent).
Young was the first outside linebacker to go down when he was lost to a torn triceps in Week 4, an injury that required surgery. It was the second major injury for Young in four seasons with the Bears after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the 2014 season finale. Young had gotten off to a fine start with two sacks and his departure affected the pass rush. It's going to be interesting to see what the team decides to do with Young, 32, as he's due a base salary of $3.5 million with a $1 million roster bonus. That's not a prohibitive figure for the Bears to carry into 2018, especially considering Young has been a dependable player and good figure in the locker room. But if he's viewed to be long in the tooth, the Bears could look to move on. That's the issue that faces the team here. If they move on from McPhee and Young, they'll have to fill multiple slots and a young player, perhaps a high draft pick, would make a lot of sense.
Houston played hard when he returned for the final five games and racked up four sacks in what was an audition for other teams in 2018. The Bears didn't deem him to be a fit for them before the season started and it's difficult to think he will be headed into next season. He wound up with 231 snaps, fourth among outside linebackers.
Irving, an undrafted free agent who shined late in preseason action, saw action in seven games, primarily on special teams at first. He totaled 41 snaps on defense before going on IR with a minor knee injury. Jones saw 34 snaps over the final four games.
Free agency/draft priority: Medium to high. The Bears have been able to generate a quality pass rush from the interior of the defensive line, and that certainly factors into the equation. They should be able to count on Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman for production and a pocket push again in 2018, so it may or may not be a pressing need depending on how the team views it. Adding a young player with more speed and athletic ability off the edge would give Fangio a lot more versatility when it comes to the pass rush. An elite edge rusher to pair with Floyd could elevate the defense to a new level. Imagine what that would do for the cornerbacks and secondary in terms of pass defense. Maybe the Bears consider bringing Acho back because he's a security blanket for Fangio and a stand-up guy in the locker room. McPhee figures to be done and it's unlikely Houston returns. A decision on Young will have to be made. Whatever the Bears do, they need to get either some youth or some options they have reason to believe will be durable.
Change in coaching staff means: Little. Fangio isn't going to reinvent what he has been doing on defense. He could get more creative with some added athleticism and speed.
Bottom line: This is a huge season for Floyd. All eyes are going to be on Mitch Trubisky, for good reason, but Floyd is the next most significant player when thinking about the Bears' future and where they can go. After the 2018 season, the Bears will have to make a determination on the fifth-year option in his contract. I would not call him a disappointment through two seasons. But I think it's fair to say he still has oodles of untapped potential and some extreme room for growth. If Floyd blossoms, he could become one of the dominant defensive players in the NFC North. When I talked to an opposing offensive coordinator during the season, he identified Floyd as the one player on the roster who concerned his team in preparation for the game. He said while the statistical production didn't impress, Floyd's speed was concerning and set him apart from the rest of the players on the field. The Bears cannot afford to have another first-round pick fizzle out on them before a decision on the fifth-year option. They are fully expected to decline the fifth-year option on wide receiver Kevin White this offseason, and when that happens he will be the third first-round pick in a four-year span to have his option declined. Right guard Kyle Long is the only one who had his picked up in that span with Shea McClellin and Kyle Fuller both being declined. Whether the Bears choose to strengthen this position in free agency or the draft remains to be seen. It's difficult to find top-level pass rushers on the open market, and the Bears learned that lesson with McPhee.
Coming Thursday: Inside linebackers