The Chicago Bears managed the 12th most sacks in the NFL last season. Can this year’s pass-rush unit ascend into the Top 10, or potentially the Top 5?
In 2016, few Chicago Bears positional groups were hit harder by the injury bug than outside linebacker.
Pernell McPhee spent the first seven weeks on PUP due to off-season knee surgery and didn’t appear to be 100 percent until late in the campaign. Lamarr Houston missed 14 games due to a torn ACL, while Leonard Floyd missed four games and finished the year on IR after suffering his second concussion.
Willie Young played all 16 games and managed a team-high 7.5 sacks, yet three of those came in one game, while Sam Acho had just one sack on the season.
Yet, despite all the injuries and inconsistencies off the edge, the Bears still managed 37 sacks as a team, which was 12th best in the NFL. One more sack last season and they would have tied for 9th most in the league.
Will this year’s pass rush be able to take that next step and ascend to a Top-10 or even Top-5 unit? After a month on the sidelines for OTAs and minicamps, here’s where we stand.
The Bears did not add any pass rushers through the draft and the only significant DL free-agent acquisition was Jaye Howard, who had a career high 5.5 sacks two years ago.
GM Ryan Pace put little effort into boosting the pass rush this off-season, so why should we expect this year’s unit, all of whom are a year older, to perform at a higher level?
After two injury filled seasons, McPhee appears to be 100 percent healthy.
“I still feel great, I’m moving around pretty good, as I watch myself on film,” McPhee said during OTAs. “I feel lighter than I was a couple of weeks ago when you saw me. So, you know, still feeling great.”
Floyd has added weight, which should help him hold up to the rigors of NFL football, and doesn’t appear to have lost any of his speed or burst.
Despite numerous nagging injuries, and the concussions, Floyd still managed 7.0 sacks his first year in the league, which was third most among rookies. Even if he takes just a small step forward, which is very reasonable, that could result in a 10-sack campaign.
Lamarr Houston is not yet 100 percent but the Bears expect him to be ready to go by the start of training camp or shortly thereafter. Remember, Houston led the team with 8.0 sacks two years ago. He’s 30 and coming off his second major knee injury, so I don’t expect him to match that total, but Houston could add a handful of sacks, while showing his usual stoutness against the run.
Akiem Hicks had a breakout campaign in 2016, racking up a career-high 7.0 sacks. He was dominant during OTAs and training camp last season, making it clear he was on the verge of taking his game to the next level.
To this point in the off-season, Hicks has been just as dominant during Bears practices. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason Hicks won’t match or surpass his sack total from last season.
Jaye Howard is still recovering from the hip injury that cost him half of last season but he should be ready to go at some point during camp. He had 5.5 sacks just two years ago. If he can match that total, with Hicks also rising to the occasion, the Bears should be able to consistently push the pocket in the face of opposing quarterbacks.
The Wild Card
Last year’s third-round pick, DL Jonathan Bullard, had a disappointing rookie campaign. He finished with just 18 total tackles and 1.0 sack and was a healthy scratch twice late in the season.
Bullard struggled to fight off blocks and never showed the same ability to penetrate into opposing backfields as he did while at Florida.
Yet Bullard looked very good the past month during practice. He’s been highly disruptive against both the run and pass, which is a great sign for the second-year player.
There has yet to be a padded practice, so it’s too early to anoint Bullard as the next Tommie Harris. But if he carries over his OTA performances to training camp, and then to the preseason, Bullard could have a substantial positive impact for Chicago’s pass rush in 2017.
On the Other Hand …
Lamarr Houston just turned 30, Willie Young will turn 32 in Week 2 of the regular season and Pernell McPhee will be 29 by season’s end.
All three are established edge rushers who each have a season of 7.5 sacks or more under his belt. Yet what are the odds any of these three match their previous career highs? Or even stay healthy all season?
While Floyd showed serious potential as a rookie, he suffered two concussions last year and it took him two months to recover from the second one.
Multiple concussions early in a player’s career are very concerning and have the potential to accumulate rapidly. For Floyd’s sake, hopefully it doesn’t becoming a recurring issue, but there’s a decent chance it will.
The Bears were on the verge of being a Top-10 pass rush team last season, despite truncated contributions from Houston, Floyd and McPhee, and a disappointing rookie year from Bullard.
So there’s no reason they can’t improve on last year’s numbers, particularly if Bullard takes a leap forward and Floyd stays healthy.
Yet I don’t see this unit, which is relatively frail and old, suddenly becoming an elite pass-rush group. There is definitely enough talent at multiple positions up front for Chicago’s pass rush to be a team strength, which would go a long way toward supporting a suspect secondary, but we’re not talking about the 2015 Denver Broncos pass rush here.
In fact, while things should be fine this year, expect Pace to aggressively address the aging outside linebacker position next off-season.