February, 2017. Khalil Mack has just been awarded a well-deserved Defensive Player of the Year honor and seemingly has become the most promising young edge rusher in football.
What would you have said or done to someone if they had told you, in February of 2017, that a year and a half later Mack would be a Chicago Bear because the Monday Night Football announcer refused to pay him what he was worth?
Personally, I would have called the police. But that doesn’t matter, because somehow that happened. Mack is a Bear, and he’ll be a Bear for a while, and that’s great. However, there are legitimate worries about the players behind him and their ability to stay on the field.
God: Khalil Mack
Starter: Leonard Floyd
10 months, 16 days, three hours, and 21 minutes later, it still feels surreal. The Bears have Khalil Mack, and as I have expressed many times, he is the quintessential outside linebacker. He’s perfect in every sense of the word.
Mack’s game isn’t predicated on any one move. He will go around you, he will deke inside you, he will go through you, and occasionally he might throw you to the ground with one hand. His understanding of leverage is incredible, as his knowledge of his opponents’ tendencies. He’s the hardest worker on the Bears and by all accounts a great teammate to boot.
Opposite Mack will be Floyd, who has received scrutiny over the years for not becoming a pass rusher worthy of the ninth overall pick, and deservedly so, but he has developed into a fine player. He will chase down any running quarterback in the league and his run defense, once thought of as a liability, is now an indisputable strength. This year is really his last chance to become more than that, and we’ll find out soon if he can.
After sniffing around the free agent market for an upgrade, the Bears decided to resign Lynch to be their third outside backer. In general, he can be trusted to be solid against the run and allow Mack and Floyd time to recover. Staying healthy has always been the issue for Lynch – more on that later.
Irving returns as well, and he’s a safe bet to make the roster because he’s more experienced than the other three. However, Irving entering the season entrenched as the fourth outside linebacker should be concerning for Bears fans, especially with two injury-prone players in front of him – again, more on that later.
Key Training Camp Battle: More back-of-the-roster competition
Fitts should not and will not be treated as a lock to make the Bears’ roster, especially given how defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano discussed the Bears’ two undrafted free agents, Betts and Harris. He was asked at the Bears’ 100th year celebration convention which players of that variety were standing out in offseason workouts, and lo and behold, he mentioned Betts and Harris.
The Bears would be thrilled if one of those two – or Fitts, for that matter – emerged as either a special teamer or a possible contributor on the edge, and I see no reason they wouldn’t keep five linebackers this season. One of the three bubble players will make it; the question is which one.
Keys to Success
1. Health of the Floyd and Lynch
My take on Floyd at this point is that he is who he is. I don’t think he’ll ever evolve into a premier pass rusher – he doesn’t have the bend around the edge, as my colleague and co-host Tom (@tomkavanaugh44) has pointed out) many times – but frankly, the Bears don’t need him to. They need him to be the edge-setting, run-stuffing, occasionally slot receiver-covering outside backer that he is right now, and they need him to do it for sixteen games.
Lynch’s health is paramount as well, because if Irving is forced to step into the first man off the bench role, Mack and Floyd will almost never have a chance to rest. While he has stood out in preseason, he’s shown on tape against actual NFL tackles that he won’t be able to hold his ground against the run unless he’s gotten considerably stronger.
If both are hurt at the same time, the Bears are screwed. Unless…
2. Emergence of the undrafted rookie(s)
The performance of Betts and Harris will be one of the main aspects of Bears football to which you should be paying attention. Crazier things have happened than an undrafted free agent becoming a rotational contributor early, and from both a long-term and short-term perspective, that would be huge.
Immediately, they would provide an insurance policy for Lynch’s potential absence and an extra piece for Pagano’s sub package mania. And for the future, they’re under cheap control for the next three to four years, which if something that cannot be said about any edge rusher currently on the team.
3. Return of the Mack
Khalil Mack’s incredible 2018 season was produced without the help of a training camp or more than a week in a brand-new defensive scheme. This concept should be absolutely mortifying for the rest of the NFC, because he’ll be in Bourbonnais in ten days and he’ll know everything Pagano wants to do inside and out.
Bears fans should have every reason to expect Khalil Mack to be even better, and that is almost incomprehensible. With those two missions completed and under his belt, all Mack will have left to do is dominate.