The 'major point' Eddie Goldman and the Bears are making on defense this year

The 'major point' Eddie Goldman and the Bears are making on defense this year

The Bears’ last four first round draft picks combined to play a total of 24 games last season, and first-round pick Leonard Floyd had half that number alone.

The top three selections in Ryan Pace’s first draft class in 2015 have played in just 33 of a possible 48 games, Eddie Goldman leads the way with 21 of those.

As far as 2017 is concerned, Pace’s offseason moves focused more on roster depth than big splashes that could be written in ink on the depth chart. Based on what his team has experienced injury-wise in his two years at the helm (as those supposed building blocks have mostly been blocking the door to the trainer’s room), it shows the general manager is still counting on them to finally put a full, or at least most of a full, season together.  

This week’s mandatory minicamp Tuesday through Thursday at Halas Hall is the final barrier some of these kids must get through before reporting to training camp six weeks from now. While we wait to see how many of those projected core players take part this week, especially all three days, Goldman is also tired of waiting for health, and beyond that, growth. 

He says he’s fully recovered from the high ankle sprain that limited him to just six games in his sophomore campaign, spending some of the early portion of the offseason continuing rehab at a facility in San Diego. But he still managed 2.5 sacks in that limited time a year ago, and has seven for his career, which is a pretty impressive number for any nose tackle who excels at occupying opposing linemen to clog running lanes. And he’s well aware of how it takes a defensive village to improve on an embarrassing total of just 28 takeaways the last two seasons, including an NFL record 11 last year.

“We’re putting emphasis on the takeaways,” Goldman said after last Tuesday’s OTA in which that side of the ball gets vocal when they forced one in seven-on-seven drills. “When we get them, we’re rallying to the ball helping the way to get to the end zone. It’s one of the major points that Vic (Fangio) is making in the classroom.”

It would be unwise to think that defensive coordinator Fangio’s unit will suddenly morph into Lovie Smith-style production. But Goldman says the problem’s being addressed with regularity, and just like all Bears fans, he’s getting impatient for the never-ending injury bug to run its course. That’s especially true up front as a revamped secondary learns to work together. That also means having all the pass rush components in place as Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston (and eventually, Danny Trevathan) work their way back from various injuries and surgeries.

“The front seven on any team is always the core," he said. "I feel like we’re meshing, we’re coming together, playing good, and there’s an urgency.”

And as Young recently shared, the defense (which still flirted with top 10 status much of last season before a miserable final three games) wants to take the reins, and take over the team’s identity, as several new offensive components learn to mesh.

“If we do our job," he said, "the offense can do its job more effectively.”

A full season from a healthy Goldman is, quite literally, front and center toward doing that.

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.

Why Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh will be 'pulling hard' for the Bears this season

Why Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh will be 'pulling hard' for the Bears this season

Jim Harbaugh is a former Chicago Bear, but that's not the main reason why he'll be rooting for the Monsters of the Midway this fall.

Harbaugh, the current Michigan head coach and former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, used to coach alongside current Bears assistants Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell in the Bay Area.

Fangio, the Bears' defensive coordiantor, and Donatell, the Bears' defensive backs coach, held those same positions for all four of Harbaugh's seasons leading the Niners.

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Harbaugh voiced his support for his former assistants Monday, speaking with CSN's Pat Boyle at the Golf.Give.Gala golf outing in St. Charles.

"I know (the Bears) are going to have a heck of a defense," Harbaugh said. "Because I know they've got Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell and a tremendous coaching staff. So I'll be pulling hard for them."

Harbaugh also was asked about new Bears quarterback Mike Glennon, and you can hear his comments in the video above, as well as comments from Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer on another new Bears quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.