INDIANAPOLIS – A week ago, the Bears had a serious need to add juice to the pass rush because backups Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho are soon-to-be free agents, and their top remaining edge rusher, Leonard Floyd, has missed 10 games in his first two seasons.
In light of more recent developments, that need has become critical.
Oft-injured but occasionally effective, Pernell McPhee (14 sacks in the previous three years) was cut Monday. On Wednesday, Willie Young was let go, even though his 24 sacks from 2014 to 2016 easily were the most by a Bear in that three-year span. Young only played in four games last season before tearing a triceps muscle, and he’s 32, but he had two sacks last year before he was injured.
The result is general manager Ryan Pace will have a much greater sense of urgency as he and his staff evaluate the edge rushers this week at the NFL Scouting Combine and as he plots his offseason strategy.
“Pass rush is always a priority for us,” Pace said. “You can never have enough pass rush, so that’s a position of need for us, and it’s something we’re looking into.”
Much is expected from the lanky Floyd, the ninth overall draft pick in 2016, and Pace is pleased with his offseason work after a sprained knee landed him on injured reserve for the final six games last season. Pace expects Floyd to be a full participant when the offseason program officially begins in April. The bigger issue is whether he can stay healthy for 16 games.
“He’s added strength,” Pace said of the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Floyd. “He’s added size, which I think is going to help as he matures as an NFL player. His rehab couldn’t be going better. Just the way he’s attacking that. We feel really good about the progress he’s making.”
The Bears were No. 6 in the NFL in sack percentage last year, even though defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, with 81/2, was their only player with more sacks than Floyd’s 41/2. What Vic Fangio’s defense got in 2017 was a little bit of pass rush from a lot of players. But most of them soon could be gone.
McPhee and Houston each had four, and Houston got his in the final five weeks after he was signed as a free agent. Acho had three sacks, and DL Mitch Unrein had 2½, but he’s also a free agent, as is versatile linebacker Christian Jones, who added two sacks.
In Fangio’s defense, much of the pass-rush burden falls on the outside linebackers, but that position needs to be restocked.
“Outside linebacker is an important position for this defense,” Pace said, “and it’s something we’ll be mindful of as we go through this process.”
The Bears are expected to have upward of $60 million available under the salary cap, but Pace always has been a bit leery of diving into the deep end of free agency, and he’s had at least as many misses as hits in his first three years.
“It’s a big responsibility we have,” Pace said of spending the money wisely. “We always use the word ‘disciplined’ or ‘calculated.’ Those are all things that come into play. But hey, we’re in good position, we have a lot of cap space, we have a high pick in the draft, we have seven draft picks.”
Much more help will be available in the draft, where the Bears have the eighth overall selection and single picks in Round 2 and Rounds 5 through 7, no pick in Round 3 but two in Round 4. It’s considered a fairly strong class of edge rushers this year.
Elite edge rushers rarely get to the open market in free agency. There are only two who fit that description this year, and the Lions already have tagged Ziggy Ansah, while the Cowboys are expected to get something worked out with DeMarcus Lawrence.
“A lot of times guys become free agents for a reason, and we’re mindful of that,” Pace said. “As we continue to build our roster more and more through the draft, maybe we won’t have to supplement as much in free agency. But we have to be mindful of that. It is risky.”
It certainly has been for the Bears.