Bears Training Camp Preview: 3 burning questions for the linebackers

Bears Training Camp Preview: 3 burning questions for the linebackers

With training camp starting later this month, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: The linebacking corps.

1. Can Floyd be Beasley 2.0?

At this time a year ago, Falcons fans were anxious that picking Vic Beasley eighth overall in 2015 was a mistake after a four-sack rookie season. Fifteen-and-a-half sacks later on Dan Quinn’s young, fast defense that improved as the season went on, they’re claiming they believed in him all along. There seems to be less doubt about the ninth overall pick from 2016 among Bears fans, but the anxiousness now revolves around Leonard Floyd’s ability to stay healthy for a full season after various aches and pains, topped off by two concussions in five weeks, from which he didn’t fully recover until February.

With approximately eight to 10 additional pounds on his frame, the first step is getting through Bourbonnais and three preseason games. If he can pull it off and miss minimal time, Beasley’s year two numbers might be a bit much, but there’s no reason to think Floyd can’t at least approach it.

“It’s like night and day compared to last season,” said Floyd.  “I’m doing a much better job this year with my weight compared to last year. I came in way, way lighter than I did this year.”

“It slows down, they understand it, they’re not thinking, they’re reacting,” said John Fox about the difference between a player’s rookie and sophomore season. “I expect that, and I’ve seen it already, even in the offseason. He’s a really good talent. I’d rather understate and let him over-produce, but both mentally and physically, he’s gonna take a step.”

[3 burning questions: Defensive line]

2. How much Pernell pacing in practice?

It’s an important year for Ryan Pace’s first big personnel decision. It’s become clear the Ravens chose not to re-sign Pernell McPhee two years ago because of fears about the wear and tear on his legs at the weight he was at. The first half of his first season, McPhee lived up to billing. Since then? Five sacks in 16 games. He seems now to be in the 270-pound range after starting his Bears career in the 280/285-pound range. He’s also coming off labrum surgery, an injury that slowed him once he finally came off the PUP list last season. The important thing will be having him full strength for the season-opening Murderer’s Row in a 19-day span of Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Green Bay.

“Dominate and destroy,” were the words that only McPhee can come up with when asked about the pass rush ceiling for the outside linebackers. “Every opponent that we face, and showing the world why we’ve got these guys in the room. That’s my focus. That’s what I wanna do and I think what we’re gonna do.”

3. “Kwit” a quick study?

It would be shocking if inside linebacker Danny Trevathan doesn’t begin the season on the same Physically Unable to Perform list McPhee started on a year ago after tearing the patellar tendon in his knee in November. Nick Kwiatkowski missed almost all of his rookie preseason with a hamstring pull, but started the last six weeks between Trevathan’s injury and Jerrell Freeman’s suspension. And he didn’t look overwhelmed. Now, potentially alongside Freeman’s standout play and guidance, Kwiatkowski must be ready to slide in and take the next step in a way Fox expressed confidence in all the second-year players.

“He’s trying to absorb a lot of things, trying to get his footwork better, his pass rush better, just like all of us strive to every day,” said Freeman.

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

The Bears believe Leonard Floyd will make the leap from being a promising rookie to a breakout second-year player, the kind who can be a centerpiece of a defense as soon as this fall.  

The Bears in 2016 totaled 37 sacks —12th in the NFL — despite dealing with a rash of injuries and not having a standout player in terms of getting to the quarterback. Willie Young led the team with 7 1/2 sacks, which tied him for 31st in the league last year, while Floyd and Akiem Hicks each had seven. 

Sixteen players recorded double-digit sacks last year. That’s not the end-all benchmark for Floyd in 2017, but for a former top-10 pick with elite skills and, as his coaches and teammate said, the right mentality, it’s not out of the question. 

“With most players, you go from your freshman year to sophomore or rookie to second year, … it slows down, they understand it, they're not thinking, they're reacting,” coach John Fox said. “And so I'd expect that and I've seen that already even in the off-season.”

Floyd, earlier this month, talked about how much more comfortable he feels after a full year of practicing and playing at the NFL level. 

“Everything was just fast when I got here last year,” Floyd said. “This year’s it’s way slower and I feel like I’m doing pretty good this year.”

There are two issues with Floyd that won’t go away until he proves they’re not problems in the regular season, though: His weight and his concussions. 

The weight issue is one Floyd has heard for a while, joking with reporters during veteran minicamp that he was surprised it wasn’t the first thing he was asked during his session with the media. He said he “definitely gained some weight” without revealing how much he’s put on, only saying he feels like he’s in much better shape now than he was as a rookie.

“It’s like night and day compared to last year,” Floyd said. 

The concessions are a far more serious — and scary — issue given it took Floyd two months to fully recover from the second concussion he suffered in 2016. 

The Bears believe Floyd’s concussion issues are correctable, though, given they were the product of poor tackling form made worse by collisions with Hicks. The crown of Floyd’s helmet was too low, so he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio worked with tackling dummies and sled machines in an effort to fix that issue. 

The hope is that Floyd can stay healthy and marry his skills with a better knowledge of the game to put together a breakout year in 2017. His teammates sounded confident during the offseason program that everything was falling into place for the former ninth overall pick. 

“He’s a great competitor,” Hicks said. “Great energy, fast, athletic, he’s everything you want in an outside linebacker, right? Nonstop motor — I can give you all the cliche terms, but I just feel like as far as the defensive line or an outside linebacker, another year under his belt is only going to make him better.”

Added linebacker Jerrell Freeman: “That guy is going to be good for a while.” 

Leonard Floyd's scary concussions changed the way he thought about everything

Leonard Floyd's scary concussions changed the way he thought about everything

He’s feeling fine now, but it took Leonard Floyd about two months before he felt like himself again after suffering his second concussion last season. 

It wasn’t until February that Floyd was back to normal, serving as a scary lesson in how concussions can have long-lasting effects. 

“You just don't feel normal,” Floyd said. “You know it's this thinking part, like you don't think the same. I wasn't thinking like I normally would think and then I'd be staring off in space some times instead of paying attention.”

“… It gradually got better. Day by day I was able to focus more and my mind wasn't all racing everywhere and I was able to lock in on things.”

Floyd, though, wasn’t worried about his recovery from those two concussions, which he suffered about a month apart in November and December. Once he got his first good workout in sometime during February, he felt he cleared the biggest hurdle necessary to getting back to normal. 

One of Floyd’s focuses during OTAs and veteran minicamp has been working on preventing another concussion, which he feels can happen if he can teach himself how to tackle without leaving the crown of his helmet too low. He and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have been working with tackling dummies and sled machines to tweak the Georgia product’s tackling form to put him in the best position to avoid another concussion. 

“I definitely gotta be aware, because I don’t wanna get another concussion and sit out games,” Floyd said. “I gotta make sure I play every game.”