Photos of the Bears’ first-round pick in 2016.
When the doors to Halas Hall swing open Tuesday morning for the start of the voluntary offseason workout program, the Bears are hopeful Leonard Floyd will already have taken a couple of steps toward a dominating year.
Floyd flashed glimpses of his massive raw talent in a rookie season in which he had seven sacks in 12 games. If the Bears are going to be substantially better on defense than they were during their three-win 2016 season, he has to be at the center of improvement.
The pass rush needs to reach new heights, ones not seen in many seasons, and that in turn should improve the woefully low takeaway totals they have suffered the last two years, following up a franchise-low 17 in 2015 with a more anemic 11 in 2016.
Floyd is the poster child for the pass rush and needs to be the star of the show on a team with veterans like Willie Young and Pernell McPhee. It’s not a difficult projection to make. Sure, it’s going to require a lot of hard work, but nothing has indicated Floyd isn’t up for that.
What should the Bears hope for?
Start with a better version of the Falcons’ Vic Beasley. He led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in his second season after managing only four as a rookie. Selected one pick after Bears wide receiver Kevin White in the 2015 draft, Beasley found the adjustment to the NFL challenging in his first season.
"It’s a big-boy league and I came into it as a rookie and a lot of things didn’t work out production-wise, but I kept faith and I kept working in the offseason," said Beasley, who finished with two more sacks than the Broncos’ Von Miller. "I spent a lot of time working on myself and coaches kept working with me and put me on the field and encouraged me and told me what I could be. The biggest thing, man, was just the experience."
The Bears will have to be playing with the lead an awful lot for Floyd to get 15-plus sacks like Beasley did for the NFC champion Falcons, but he has the same skills and a better frame. Beasley is just one of the many faces in a wave of young pass rushers to have success across the league. The Cardinals’ Markus Golden tied for third with 12 1/2 sacks in his second season. Like Beasley, he had four as a rookie. The Vikings’ Danielle Hunter also finished with 12 1/2 sacks after getting six as a rookie.
Dee Ford had 10 sacks in the Chiefs’ first 10 games. It was his third year, but he’d struggled and finished with only six sacks over 30 games in his first two seasons. He took off when the Chiefs needed him most — after Justin Houston suffered an injury.
Ford said opportunity — more playing time — was the biggest difference, but sources in Kansas City said he was playing with more confidence and a better grasp on what offenses were trying to do, all part of the maturation process.
"If you really look at my game, it hasn’t changed from college to now," Ford said. "I’ve gotten better at the same moves, but nothing really changed. It was a just the situation I was in. I was sitting back learning, which was the best option for me.
"I’ve watched Leonard play. He’s strong. He’s lighter. He needs mass, that little bit of mass will help him out as far as the initial impact. But he’s really good. I don’t want to say great yet. There are a lot of things he needs to learn, but once he does, he’ll be unstoppable because he is tall. I am a fan of him. I like him. He probably doubled my snaps from his rookie year."
Falcons coach Dan Quinn stressed the offseason was the time when Beasley was really able to self-scout and fine-tune his game, which, like Floyd’s, is based on speed and quickness off the edge.
"Like most guys, (Beasley) had high expectations to have a fantastic rookie year and then he found out it can be challenging," Quinn said. " ‘This tackle sets different from this one. How do I utilize my games here?’ So when the offseason came, there was a real shift and a real focus on finding the techniques that do well. ‘Here’s the things I need to improve on.’ He’s always had the speed to beat a guy to the punch, the way he can jump off the ball. Now, he added the counters into that, the use of pass-rush stunts in a better way, so the development from Year 1 to Year 2 was exactly like we hoped it would be."
Too much probably has been made of Floyd’s weight. The Bears list him at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and it will be interesting to see if that changes after he hits the scales at some point this spring. But more important than his weight is improved upper-body strength. The ability to blend speed and power will make him a more dynamic threat. He needs to callus his body for the rigors of a 16-game schedule and, of course, he needs to play with his head up so he avoids running into teammates (see Akiem Hicks, a collision Floyd won’t win) and getting concussions.
Floyd was really only scratching the surface as a rookie, and with the knowledge of the big steps pass rushers can take entering Year 2, the Bears have to feel confident he can quickly become the centerpiece of the defense.
"First of all, John Fox knows what he’s looking at when he sees defensive players, especially edge rushers," said former Bear Julius Peppers, who is fifth on the NFL’s all-time sack list. "If they bring in defensive players, you can almost guarantee they’re going to be pretty good.
"Leonard Floyd is a lean, long guy who is athletic and can rush. I like his game a lot."