Bears Offseason Outlook: Outside Linebacker

Khalil Mack's presence fortified the Bears' edge rush.

Chris Emma
February 07, 2019 - 1:59 pm
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Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. Click here for all of them as we move along.

(670 The Score) Throughout last offseason, through training camp and nearly into the regular season, there were questions as to whether the Bears had enough at outside linebacker. Given the importance of the position in their schemes, the concerns were legitimate.

Then Khalil Mack arrived in Chicago via trade and everything changed. A position of need was filled with a game-changing superstar, and the rest of the defense thrived. 

Who's back: Khalil Mack, 27; Leonard Floyd, 26; Sam Acho, 30; Kylie Fitts, 24

The Bears have Mack under contract control for five more seasons on a deal that's the largest for a defensive player in league history. A 2016 first-round pick, Floyd will have his fifth-year option picked up, meaning he's under contract for at least two more seasons. 

The veteran Acho is a candidate for an offseason release given his age and contract situation. He would be cut without cap ramifications. Drafted in the sixth round last spring, Fitts can provide depth at outside linebacker.

Free agents: Aaron Lynch, 25; Isaiah Irving, 24 (ERFA)

The Bears signed Lynch to a one-year deal last offseason hoping he could bounce back, and he proved to be a solid addition. Lynch played recorded three sacks in 13 games. He also missed three contests with a right elbow sprain.

An undrafted free agent signed in spring 2017, Irving has flashed promise in practice. He's an exclusive rights free agent and likely will be retained this offseason.

2018 review

So much for those questions about whether the Bears would get enough production at outside linebacker. The addition of Mack was crucial not only because of his talent but also because he plays such an important position.

Chicago acquired Mack on Sept. 1, just eight day before the regular-season opener at Green Bay. He brought instant credibility to a young team. In his Bears debut, he posted a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pick-six. 

The only lull in Mack's season came due to injuries. He played through an ailing ankle during two games in October before being sidelined for two contests. Mack also suffered a knee sprain during the Bears' wild-card loss to the Eagles, which kept him from playing the Pro Bowl.

In Mack's first season with the Bears, the defense ascended from being a top-10 unit to one of the league's elite. Chicago led the NFL in scoring defense (17.7 points allowed per game), takeaways (36) and interceptions (27). The Bears also ranked third in the NFL with 50 sacks, led by Mack's 12.5.

"One hundred percent (worth it)," general manager Ryan Pace said of Mack's price, which included sending the Raiders two first-round picks.

The hope for Floyd was to enjoy his first season of full health and be a productive presence for the defense. That didn't go entirely to plan. He suffered a fracture in his right hand during the preseason. He played through the injury but was limited through much of September -- first by a protective cast, then later as he tried to regain full function of the hand.

Among the strongest supporters for Floyd was defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who often noted the injury was affecting his performance. Fangio maintained that once Floyd reached full health, he would emerge.

Floyd did just that, serving as a disruptive presence. That included a fourth-quarter sack on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that helped secure the Bears' division crown in December.

Lynch was signed by the Bears last March after an unfulfilling run with the 49ers. He had recorded 12.5 sacks his first two seasons in San Francisco but just 2.5 the following two years. The Bears offered Lynch a one-year deal and the chance to prove himself. 

Lynch got off to a poor start with the Bears, suffering two different injuries in the the offseason program and then missing all of training camp with a hamstring injury. Still, the Bears showed faith in him, keeping him on the 53-man roster. He rewarded them be being a steady presence.

2019 outlook

The Bears have a new outside linebackers coach in Ted Monachino, who replaces Brandon Staley, who wasn't retained under new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

The Bears feel confident in their outside linebacker position in the long term thanks to Mack, whose presence creates more favorable rushing opportunities for Floyd, Lynch and others.

This 2019 season will be about developing the rest of the outside linebacker group alongside Mack. Floyd will be a key focus for Pace and his front office as the Bears assess the potential of a long-term deal for him. Perhaps a full season of good health could answer that question, as Floyd has showcased his abilities.

Given their current cap crunch, the Bears will need to find cheaper depth. They may already have some at outside linebacker, as Monachino will be tasked with developing Fitts and Irving, assuming the latter is retained on a new deal. That may well make Acho expendable.

Lynch could be signed to a new deal this offseason, which would give the Bears a veteran rusher to complement Mack and Floyd.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​