By Robert Zeglinski
Lamarr Houston has been around long enough in the NFL to know when someone has special ability. The veteran is set to start his fourth season with the Bears and he knew from the very outset that Leonard Floyd was going to be someone to watch. Raw talent aside, when someone belongs, they just do.
“As soon as I saw him in training camp last year, I saw him running, and he immediately popped in my eyes,” said Houston of a then underweight Floyd being visible for his now famous freakish first step.
Parts of the package were already there concerning Floyd from Houston’s perspective. All they needed was some general assembly. Assembly that Houston has taken care to help along with when he can.
“Anything he needs help with, you know. He’ll ask questions about different things and I’ll do my best to answer them, to be available, to help him grow as a player,” said Houston.
Now keep in mind, Houston offered this kind of assistance last year for Floyd too. As did many of the Bears veteran defenders. Mentorship for a budding franchise player doesn’t end after one season. It’s an ongoing process.
This is a story about the new face of the Bears defense. This is a tale spun about from several different men closest to a budding superstar prepared to make the leap.
Basking in the public spotlight isn’t for every NFL player. Sometimes, a quiet confidence on the field – one that has you lead by example – to go with a measured calm off of it, defines the career of a superstar more than one could even imagine.
For Floyd, he fits the latter description: a guy who will never read his own press clippings or pay any mind to the attention he will no doubt soon receive at a nauseating clip. There’s inherent pressure in being general manager Ryan Pace’s only defensive first-round pick as he’s effectively the cornerstone of his unit.
Everyone deals with that pressure differently. Floyd prefers to recognize it and be proactive.
Yes, Floyd has already flashed as a potential Bears dynamo. Seven sacks in his rookie 2016 season over an approximate five-week span showcased exactly what the lanky 6-foot-6 edge rusher could do. Or look no further for recent evidence than a clean sack on the very first play of the Bears’ defensive season against the Broncos earlier this August.
Said without hyperbole: this kind of play is something the Bears haven’t enjoyed off the edge in terms of a homegrown pass rusher since the halcyon days of Richard Dent. The Bears know it. Floyd knows it too, even if his bashfulness would never allow him to admit as much to the fact.
But Floyd’s not satisfied. That much is for certain.
Not even close.
Obvious goals of staying healthy for 16 games after suffering two concussions and missing a little over four contests in his rookie year are aspects that stick out the most for Floyd to improve upon. There’s a reason he bulked up to a sturdy 251 pounds and worked on refining his tackling technique: to help his body better withstand punishment and last longer. Early signs are all positive.
The road to perfection, or at least striving for perfection for Floyd, isn’t over yet though.
And the Bears themselves understand there’s still so much untapped potential to unlock with their young pupil. The people closest to the second-year pro are best able to understand his mental and physical process.
“He’s hungry, he just wants to be great. There’s no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. said Floyd’s veteran edge teammate excitedly, Sam Acho.
Acho himself isn’t a star by any means.
However, as a seven-year veteran in separate stints with the Bears and Cardinals, Acho’s been around long enough to recognize transcendent talents such as Floyd. His word isn’t a final judgment, but still holds plenty of weight as one of many veteran mentors Floyd can turn to for support.
“Leonard (Floyd) just wants to be great. He wants to do all the little things to be great. He has all the ability to be great. And we’re pushing him and he’s pushing me in trying to make me better,” said Acho.
That statement sheds the best light on Floyd the Bear, the cornerstone. There are no “if’s, and’s, or but’s” because Floyd is too busy actually proving it to everyone on a regular basis, the way you’d expect a player with a honed swagger to do.
Glimpses of that swagger and potential were on display during this year’s training camp in Bourbonnais.
Anyone standing on the sideline or playing next to him saw Floyd making a highlight reel play as a defender every day, making a play the only way he could when you take into account his freakish athleticism. It didn’t matter if it was off the edge in abusing a Bears’ offensive tackle or dropping back into coverage with versatile, seamless comfort. Floyd’s skill set as a 3-4 outside linebacker is what makes him so unique in standing out. Now, it’s about applying that action to live games for Floyd and flashing the eyes of the football world wide open.
There’s a degree of humility combined with a healthy amount of drive in everything, absolutely everything, Floyd does as an NFL player. The better you understand that sentiment about the 24-year-old, the clearer it is to see why everyone primarily associated with Floyd on the Bears is so preoccupied with his growth: the heights he can reach are as special as can be.
No one is more enamored in seeing those heights regarding Floyd than now fellow starting outside linebacker, Willie Young.
Young is a solid player in his own right. After all, he did lead the Bears in sacks in 2016 with 7.5.
Given his experience, Young truly relishes helping his teammate burst through the ceiling because he derives actual joy from seeing Floyd make huge leaps and bounds he’s more than capable of. It’s why you can regularly see him on the sideline in Floyd’s ear, coaching him up, showing him technique. Never leaving his side while helping motivate him.
And Young can’t help but see the demonstrative difference from Floyd the rookie to Floyd the established veteran.
“He’s a guy that’s taking on his role as a pro. He’s definitely become a pro within a year’s time,” Young said.
Honesty is important in retrospect too. Until Floyd, as mentioned, puts it together on the field, he won’t be a “star”. Young, however, understands that it’s only a matter of time—provided Floyd does his part.
“Has he arrived yet? No. But his own course, there’s nothing that he can’t do. There’s no block that he can’t control. There’s no gap he can’t handle. There’s no rush, no blocker that can stop him if he doesn’t allow himself to be stopped,” said Young of Floyd controlling what he can control.
Indeed, at this rate, Floyd has all of the necessary tools and work behind him to take this Bears defense by the reins. The only person that can stop Floyd is Floyd himself. For Young, being the proud mentor he is, this is a case study he’ll enjoy watching with his close first-hand point of view.
“What he brings to the table is just, I get a sense of joy when I see how far he’s come from now to then. I’m just enjoying every day watching him grow. Watching how he’s able to attack and be a student of the game.”
But what of those that actually have to experience Floyd the terror? What about the offensive linemen that are exposed to the handful he’s become?
Bears defenders such as Young, Houston, and Acho are always around Floyd, whether it be in meeting rooms or in individual drills in practice. Guys on the Bears’ offensive side don’t have as much exposure to Floyd until they have to actually practice against him. In that light, surely even they can see the face of the Bears’ defense growing up before everyone’s eyes.
Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. does, maintaining what sticks out about the sophomore edge rusher. Leno, as the Bears’ starter on the left side, is someone that has to practice against Floyd when called upon. Unlike anyone else, he knows the difference seen in Floyd because he actually has to block him and see what his mentors have taught him.
“He’s just getting more comfortable out there. He seems like he’s starting to understand it (the defense) more,” Leno said of a calmer Floyd.
“Last year, he (Floyd) was a rookie, he was just a raw athlete out there. Now he’s starting to put it together. And it’s exciting to see.”
That perhaps is the greatest indicator of what Floyd is prepared to do in 2017 and beyond. His comfort level – his understanding of his responsibilities while working within and outside the confines of Bears’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unique scheme – is what will launch him into the stratosphere and into conversations among the NFL’s best pass rushers and even players.
This conversation surrounding Floyd may seem premature and offer him a little too much hype. That is until you hear it from Fangio himself, a coach who doesn’t gush about his own players lightly.
“He’s got really good potential. I think he’ll be a very good player for us for a long time and looked upon as a very good player in the league,” Fangio said.
Fangio, who is seen as a defensive guru, always chooses his words carefully while offering refreshing honesty. The fact that he chose to place that mantle of expectations on Floyd speaks volumes. He will also define what Floyd’s success means. It won’t have to come in raw statistical numbers provided he’s still producing in other meaningful ways on the field.
Those kinds of number predictions are pointless at this stage. All Fangio knows is that Floyd is prepared for every challenge and that’s what actually matters. There’s no mincing of words here.
“If you’re looking for statistical numbers, I can’t put a finger on that. But he’ll be a damn good player.”
To his credit, all the compliments and high praise barely phase Floyd.
None of them matter to him because Floyd understands his ultimate priority aside from football – his family – first and foremost.
“They just drive me every day because I want to provide for them. It’s simple, I want to take care of them so I go hard every day for them,” Floyd said of taking care of his two children.
This game isn’t about Floyd the individual. He could care less about what it does for him in retrospect. It’s about using it as a platform for those he cares about the most. The expected rise in play is merely an added bonus for everyone else that coincides with that impressive drive.
Any time or energy spent away from the things that really matter – his family and football – take away from a necessary controlled focus. Someone like Floyd, who in growing up in a small town of 5,000 in Eastman, Georgia, prefers to instead let his rising dominance do all the talking for him.
Ultimately, Floyd’s play is his mouthpiece, his microphone, and you won’t hear much other audible noise.
Floyd has his eye on the prize instead of buying into his own rise. Compare him to other star pass rushers such as the Broncos’ Von Miller or the Raiders’ Khalil Mack and he’ll underplay himself every time, all while attempting to understand his counterparts – a wise move.
“We’re different players. We’re different rushers. I don’t think I really resemble anybody else. But I still look at their games and try to pick out things that they do well in their game and add it to mine,” said a humble Floyd.
At this stage, you can no longer describe Floyd in a timid fashion. He’s a ball of channeled energy waiting to be unleashed, one the Bears wait to view with bated anticipation, to make sure he leaves nothing in doubt on the field. The time for talking is now over. One of the longest and most productive offseasons of Floyd’s career has taken shape and been evident in his early demeanor. It’s likely difficult for him to be patient to wade through the remainder of August before he can put on a show for the league.
But, if Floyd’s waited this long enough, if he’s put in the dedicated work, then the grand opening is set to be a spectacle. Floyd missed the occasional sack last year and didn’t finish many plays that a real defensive star has to be relied upon for. That’s what happens when you’re still a deer-in-the-headlights experience wise.
That’s not the case with Floyd anymore.
“I’ll make sure this year I don’t miss any.” R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.