Bears Offseason Outlook: Outside Linebacker

The Bears need more production from their pass rushers in 2020.

Chris Emma
February 11, 2020 - 2:01 pm

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. You can find them all here.

(670 The Score) The Bears defense took a collective step back in 2019, and outside linebackers' production was one of the reasons why.

Star pass rusher Khalil Mack led the Bears with 8.5 sacks, which marked his lowest total since his rookie season of 2014. Leonard Floyd played a full 16-game season but had a career-low three sacks. While sack totals don't tell the whole story, they were reflective of the disappointing play from the edge.

Injuries to several key players at other positions played a part in the outside linebackers' production dip, but it's an issue the Bears need to correct as they'll enter the 2020 season counting on the defense to carry the team's hopes again.

The Bears also face a looming decision on whether Floyd is the right rusher to line up opposite of Mack.

Who's back: Khalil Mack, 28; Leonard Floyd, 27; Isaiah Irving, 25

Free agents: Aaron Lynch, 27

How they got here

Mack was consistently dominant in 2018, when the Bears defense was at or near full health for almost the entire season.

Mack wasn't nearly as effective in 2019, in part due to the prolonged absence of star defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who missed 12 games due to multiple injuries. Without Hicks playing, opponents focused more attention on Mack, who encountered double- and even triple-team blocks at times. The Bears' foes dared somebody else to beat them.

The Bears hoped their complementary rusher would be Floyd, but he never emerged as the team hoped. He played every game and didn't have lingering nagging injuries like in 2018, but Floyd didn't make a high-level impact.

Despite Floyd's low sack total, the Bears believe there was more to his work.

"I've never coached a Sam (linebacker) like Leonard Floyd," outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said in October. "Leonard Floyd has done a great job of setting edges. He's done a great job of affecting the passing game in coverage. He's done a great job of knocking guys back into the launch point. We just got to figure out ways to get him clearer and get him to finish as a rusher."

The veteran Lynch filled primary backup role at outside linebacker, working 23 percent of the Bears' defensive snaps and and posting two sacks. Lynch was also penalized seven times for offsides/neutral zone infractions last season.

Quote to note

"Premier defensive player. I think you can definitely tell the attention that our opponents focus on him. That's a big part of it. He wants more production. We know that it's there. There's so many things that he does, I think, that go a little unnoticed, the way he plays the run, the attention that opponents have to put upon him. 

"Trust me, we're very fortunate to have Khalil Mack on our team."

-- Bears general manager Ryan Pace

What's ahead

When the Bears made a blockbuster trade with the Raiders to land Mack on Sept. 1, 2018, they hoped it would reveal the best in their defense -- and specifically Floyd.

The Bears drafted Floyd at No. 9 overall in 2016 after trading up two spots, believing they had found a pass rusher with special qualities to disrupt offenses. The Bears were attracted by Floyd's speed and athleticism and felt he would become an impact player with added strength to his 6-foot-5 frame.

Four inconsistent years later, the Bears are still evaluating Floyd more for his untapped potential than they are for his lack of production.

"We're happy with Leonard," Pace said. "I know the stats don't always say that. Leonard does a lot of things that go a little undervalued. The versatility he provides, things he can do in coverage. Not a lot of outside linebackers that can provide the versatility he provides.

"Would we like more production with him? Yeah. Would he like that? Yeah. There's a lot of things he does that we like."

As part of his fifth-year option, the Bears will pay Floyd more than $13 million in 2020, according to Spotrac. It puts him in the company of the NFL's top pass rushers, including his teammate Mack.

The Bears need more from Floyd as the complementary rusher opposite of Mack, or this will be his last season in Chicago. He's entering the final season of his deal, after which the Bears must decide his future.

Mack will be counted on to produce at a high level with a healthy Hicks up front. Beyond that, the Bears will likely seek fresh blood to add to the outside linebacker position.

Pace has been aggressive in adding edge rushers to the Bears' defense, knowing the importance of that position. Though there are more pressing needs, the Bears could draft another pass rusher as early as the second round.

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