Bears rival report: Lions needing a 'rush' on both sides

Bears rival report: Lions needing a 'rush' on both sides

As we inch towards a Bears training camp that's now less than three weeks away, we'll take a weekly look at how their three division rivals handled their respective offseasons.

In Detroit, the Lions sat at 9-4 after beating the Bears at Ford Field in December. Then they had to sweat out surviving a second playoff berth in three years by losing their final three games that would be tough enough without Matthew Stafford having injured the middle finger of his throwing hand on a Leonard Floyd rush: at the New York Giants, at Dallas, and home to Green Bay.

Stafford was in no way a problem that needed fixing this off-season, once his finger was allowed to heal after a one-sided playoff loss in Seattle. As he awaits probably the biggest quarterback payday in NFL history (surpassing the recent $25 million per season Derek Carr just got in Oakland), general manager Bob Quinn focused on fixing two areas, one of which has been a recurring theme, the other a new problem that arose last season.

The running game: It's almost mind-boggling to think what Stafford would be if he had a ground attack to supplement the growth he's made as a passer over the past four or five seasons. Get this: eight of Detroit's nine wins were fourth quarter comebacks, the most any quarterback has pulled off in NFL history. No Lions back ran for more than 70 yards in a game last season, and Stafford's had the benefit of just seven individual 100-yard rushing games over his entire eight-year career. That's astounding.

Quinn chose to attack the problem not by finding a replacement for the injury- and turnover-prone Ameer Abdullah (giving the 2015 second-rounder with speed and quickness to burn another chance), but investing in free agency in an offensive line where their recent high draft investments haven't paid off. The one that finally did pay off came last season, where Taylor Decker projected as the left tackle of the future. Then Decker tore a labrum last month, had surgery, and won't be back until November or December, if at all. This came after the Lions let recent high picks Riley Reiff (Minnesota) and Larry Warford (New Orleans) walk in free agency. They turned around and made an immediate free agent investment upgrade to their right side, tackle Ricky Wagner (Baltimore, $9.5 million a year) and guard T.J. Lang (Green Bay, three years, $28.5 million). Now they must hope second-year guard Joe Dahl, or castoffs Greg Robinson or Cyrus Kouandjio can do the kind of job in Motown in Decker's absence that the latter pair could not with the Rams and Bills.

The pass rush: A lot of this had to do with Ziggy Ansah's high ankle sprain, which limited him to just two sacks last season after 14.5 in 2015. There are other playmakers on this defense's back end: cornerback Darius Slay and safety Gloiver Quin. But this once-ferocious defense that recently boasted the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Cliff Avril and DeAndre Levy ranked 30th in sacks and 28th in takeaways. They were also 31st in third-down defense. None were around last season, with only the banged-up Levy on the roster.

Quinn chose to invest more heavily in a linebacking corps with big holes than up front, where former Illini Akeem Spence, ex-Bears Cornelius Washington and Ego Ferguson, and Jordan Hill of Jacksonville became the offseason additions. Kerry Hyder went from practice squad to the team sacks leader (8.0) last season, and Detroit's counting on a second-year boost from their 2016 second-rounder, A'Shawn Robinson of Alabama. First-round pick Jarrad Davis of Florida is expected to start from day one in the middle of a linebacking unit that had zero sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles last season. Tahir Whitehead piled up 132 tackles in the middle a year ago, but then got lost amidst Dan Quinn's need-for-speed defense. He will likely compete for the weakside spot with Paul Worrilow, a lunch-bucket guy who was among the league leaders in tackles a few years ago in Atlanta. Another SEC linebacker, Jatlen Reeves-Maybin of Tennessee, is a fourth-round big hitter who could also start on the strong side if he recovers from shoulder surgery in time for the season.

As head coach Jim Caldwell heads into a contract year, and with the Lions first five games coming at home against Arizona, at the New York Giants, home to Atlanta, at Minnesota, then hosting Carolina, these areas face an early test in a potential tone-setter for the season.

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself," Bears offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. told CSNChicago.com when asked about the personal significant of the 2017 season.

Leno Jr. is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and since Jermon Bushrod injured his back in Week 3 of the the 2015 season, Leno, Jr. has been the starter at left tackle in the 29 games since. Leno Jr. has established himself as consistent and durable, but public opinions on him outside of Halas Hall cast doubt on how high the ceiling is for the final (seventh round) draft pick of the Phil Emery regime.

Pro Football Focus’ grading system has its fans and detractors. While the Boise State product showed improvement in 2016 (70.4 grade) compared to 2015 (46.1), they ranked him 44th out of 64 offensive tackles. Also, according to PFF, Leno Jr. and right tackle Bobby Massie allowed 73 quarterback pressures and committed 14 penalties, while grading out poorly in the run game as a tandem.

Yet there’s also the overall picture to look at. The team allowed just 26 sacks, ninth-fewest in the NFL despite three different starting quarterbacks. Football Outsiders ranked the Bears offensive line seventh in pass protection and eighth in rushing. But critics of the two tackles will say the main reason for those rankings is the strength in the middle, between Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long (for half a season, at least).  Not that Leno, Jr. hasn’t been closely evaluated already, but as his future, and payday, looms. It’ll be an even more interesting watch this season.

“I’m always ready to take that next step,” said the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder who’ll turn 26 when the Bears host the Vikings on Monday, Oct. 9. “ Every year you can take a step. Whether it’s your rookie year to your second year, third year to your fourth, or ninth year to your tenth, you’re always trying to take another step, always get better. That’s my job right now, that’s my goal.”

And he’ll have to do it under his third different offensive line coach in his four years, as Jeremiah Washburn takes over for Dave Magazu. Leno Jr. told me there have been mostly minor tweaks and adjustments when it comes to new position coaches. He was most noticeable (that’s a bad thing), late in the season, when he was beaten a few times for sacks, but that didn’t do much to cloud his overall performance in his boss’ mind.

[MORE: Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?]

“To be honest, Leno was a real pleasant surprise, really exceeded expectations there,” general manager Ryan Pace said back on Jan. 4. “And I thought as he gained confidence, he got better and better. He’s very athletic, he’s long, got good balance. So (he) did very well. We have positive vibes about him coming out of the season.”

Leno, Jr. will make about $1.8 million this season as he finishes out his rookie deal. But as he enters this contract year, there are currently 14 left tackles in the NFL (including all the so-called “elite”) making an average of at least $10 million annually on their current contracts:

PLAYER | TEAM | MONEY

Trent Williams (WSH), $13.6

Russell Okung (LAC), $13.25

Terron Armstead (NO), $13

Tyron Smith (DAL), $12.2

Cordy Glenn (BUF), $12

Eric Fisher (KC), $12

David Bakhtiari (GB), $12

Riley Reiff (MIN), $11.75

Joe Thomas (CLE), $11.5

Andrew Whitworth (LAR), $11.25

Matt Kalil (CAR), $11.1

Anthony Castonzo (IND), $10.95

Jason Peters (PHI), $10.8

Nate Solder (NE), $10

Other left tackles averaging less than $10 million annually on their current deals include Houston’s Duane Brown, San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Atlanta's Jake Matthews and Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan. Plus, keep in mind here that Reiff (Detroit) and Kalil (Minnesota) were first-round picks by Bears' NFC North rivals deemed not good enough to keep around. Yet they still found believers willing to write a big check elsewhere.  If not the Bears, Leno, Jr. may find similar interest elsewhere with a season comparable to 2016. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. 11 years ago, Pace and the Saints made Northwestern’s Zach Strief a seventh round pick, and he’s hung around — not becoming a starter until his sixth season, yet being a linchpin at right tackle since.

From the above list, only the 29-year-old Solder is a pending free agent, and it’s hard to see the Patriots letting him walk, though Bill Belichick has done stranger things that’ve worked out in the end. Leno Jr. is the next-best option, because the others really aren’t. Oakland’s Donald Penn is 34, while the Chargers’ Chris Hairston, the Ravens’ James Hurst, and the Dolphins’ Sam Young have all started less than half time they’ve been in the league.

If the Bears let Leno Jr. walk and look toward the draft, Notre Dame senior Mike McGlinchey is generally regarded as the highest-rated left tackle heading into the fall with Texas’ Connor Williams, Orlando Brown of Oklahoma, Mitch Hyatt of Clemson and Martinas Rankin of Mississippi State owning various first and second-round grades. 

Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, figure the Bears will still have needs to be addressed in the draft, “best available” or not. If he doesn’t have a believer in Pace already, another step forward by Leno Jr. could earn himself a payday, and stability — personally, and for the team as they figure out how to get the best protection possible for their quarterback of the future.

Why an older Willie Young remains a good Bears catch

Why an older Willie Young remains a good Bears catch

“Patience, man. Patience. A lot of patience in my career.”

If he really wanted to, Willie Young could wonder what it’d be like to still be in Detroit. The 2010 seventh round draft pick scratched and clawed his way onto a roster that had strength on the defensive line, and in his fourth season with the Lions, Young finally became a starter. But they didn’t want to bring him back, or pay him, as much as then-GM Phil Emery and the Bears did when the 2014 free agent market opened up. Since then, the Bears have finished last in the NFC North for three straight years. Meanwhile, his former team has made the playoffs two times and has been looking for a defensive end to plug into its 4-3, opposite Ziggy-Ansah, after a good deal of turnover from Young’s final season in Motown.

But maybe the question should be: Where would the Bears be without Young?

After totaling six sacks in his four seasons with the Lions, he exploded for 10 here in 2014, then was forced to switch to outside linebacker in the scheme change under Vic Fangio and John Fox. He was unhappy and uncertain, but he “bought in” despite putting on a front that he never wanted to be called a linebacker, and still finished with 6.5 sacks. That was second on the team to Lamarr Houston (eight), who, like Young, also converted from the line. Young tore an achilles the second-to-last game in 2015, rehabbed his way back in time for the start of last season and led the way in sacks again with 7.5. Just 1.5 of those came over the final ten games, though, as Young managed a knee injury that was surgically repaired early this offseason.

“If you know anything about my career, and how I started out, you would know that patience is the key to my success,” Young said. 

So there’s your back story. Now, as he aims to rejoin his teammates on the field during next week’s mandatory veteran minicamp, 24 sacks in three years shouldn’t necessarily lead a team that has an elite pass rusher. But as the Bears hope Leonard Floyd becomes that guy, it’s impressive for everything Young’s been through. It’s a decent amount of celebratory post-sack “reeling in,” and as the avid fisherman took Chicago media out on Lake Michigan last week, courtesy of Merchant Marine, the comparisons of his two passions were inevitable. From earning his shot in Detroit, to learning a new position, to rehabbing injuries and, finally, going through a rebuild that’s taken longer than many expected as the father of two turns 32 during the first month of this season.

“I’ve got some young boys, an 11- and five-year-old right now,” Young said as his simple-to-navigate boat sped away from DuSable Harbor and cruised north along the city skyline. “They are pros at being patient right now because that’s one of the things I call a skill. That’s what I told them. You’re not always gonna catch something.

“And also have a spot where it’s not so much about quantity, but quality,” he said as the narrative shifted to the art of getting through opposing offensive linemen to sack a quarterback. “They may not catch very many, but they’ll get a bite, (eventually) catch a nice one. So just to have that understanding about patience plays a major role when you’re comparing football to fishing. You don’t always catch 'em. You may not always get a sack, y’know. But one sack, every 30-40 plays, you’re doing pretty good in the NFL, y’know?”

Here she is #Catch'Em Slip'N on the move what a day when you can land a beast like this.

A post shared by Willie Young Jr (@willie_young_gone_fishing97) on

Bears fans, though, haven’t had much quality or quantity when it comes to wins the three seasons Young’s been here. It’s nice to preach patience, but it’s wearing awfully thin. He understands. He’s lived through it. The faithful are waiting for the kind of payoff Young got last offseason, when he snagged his biggest prize, a 200-lb. swordfish off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida. Then Young got rewarded last August when his second General Manager here, Ryan Pace, recognized his effort and production with a two-year extension through 2018.

Right now, though, Young is just one piece of a defense that has potential to be very good. The Big If is if they can beat the injury bug. Young is like Houston, Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Eddie Goldman, Jaye Howard and Danny Trevathan. That’s just the front seven.

If this year is finally different, health-wise, it could be a significant step in that patience paying off, even with a secondary that looks like it will have at least three new starters in 2017.

[MORE: Mitch Trubisky pick means Bears staff might stick for 2018] 

Eight years ago, as Young was collecting eight sacks his senior season at North Carolina State, there was a young quarterback backing up Russell Wilson named Mike Glennon, who saw a bit of game action that year. When it comes to it this season, whether it’s his former college teammate or Mark Sanchez or Mitchell Trubisky guiding the other side of the ball, Young knows defensive health would provide significantly more hope and a step towards patience being rewarded.

“It’s hard not to look forward to it, especially when you have the moves we’ve been making. I’m looking forward to it. A lot of hope right now,”  Young said. “We can’t predict the future, but I do know one thing: I know we’re giving it everything we’ve got to make sure we make it easy for the new quarterbacks. I don’t know who’ll be on the field, but I’ll start with the defense and try to create a stress-free, relaxed environment for that quarterback. That way, he won’t feel like he has to force anything and can take a chance when he wants to take a chance.

“It’ll be an interesting year. No doubt about it.”

Bears fans hope it’s the kind of interesting that’s been different from what they, and Young, have experienced since his arrival.