By Robert Zeglinski
When the Bears drafted Leonard Floyd in 2016, they expected him to become a centerpiece of their rebuild. An eminently talented outside linebacker that won the 2015 Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker, the Bears had visions of grandeur of what the lanky kid from Eastman, Georgia could accomplish at the professional level. The Bears wanted to go with the “Flo,” as the talented outside linebacker is colloquially named.
The important positions on a football team are quarterback, edge rusher, and offensive tackle. Giving Floyd the vaunted title of premier edge rusher meant the Bears thought the world of his maturation and God-given gifts. If he could hold his own in multiple spots against the gauntlet known as the SEC, what realistic challenge would the NFC North provide? It couldn’t. It wouldn’t.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple.
Three years since his life transformed for the better, the 26-year-old Floyd has comfortably settled in as a Bears starter. He’s no longer expected to be the one-man pass rushing dynamo the Bears thought he could be: That’s why human bulldozer Khalil Mack plays opposite him. Instead, Floyd is the jack-of-all-trades man who covers running backs and tight ends alike, comes on selective and creative pass rushes, and uses his natural gifts of leverage to act as one of Chicago’s best run defenders. It’s not quite the role the Bears necessarily drafted him for – though, it is an added bonus he’s capable in a variety of areas – but it’s effective.
The question for Floyd as he enters the fourth year of his rookie contract is how much he’s worth to the Bears in the long-term. General manager Ryan Pace and company are already cap-strapped and have other future contract extension considerations to make in the form of Cody Whitehair, Eddie Jackson, and eventually in an ideal world … Mitchell Trubisky. If Floyd’s going to stick around at Halas Hall, it might be high time to have his individual role evolve more in new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s scheme.
Career statistics: 114 tackles, 32 quarterback hits, 15.5 sacks, 8 pass deflections (38 starts)
At this stage in his career, it doesn’t appear Floyd will morph into a prototypical pass rusher like the Mack’s of the world. Though health issues have precluded a better look at what Floyd’s capable of full-time (he missed at least four starts in each of his first two seasons and was held back some by a broken hand to start 2018), his game isn’t supernaturally bending the edge with uncommon balance and power. Floyd is a Swiss Army Knife deployable in all situations. He possesses many desirable and useful defensive skills that make it difficult to take him off the field. Unfortunately, he isn’t particularly great in any one niche. Versatile players of his mold aren’t always a dime a dozen, but they’re not compensated as such because they don’t do anything special.
The problem with Floyd becoming a terrific feared pass rusher is his limited repertoire of moves. Despite his length and size at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, and despite his obvious speed that attracted the Bears to his services in the first place, he’s a one-trick pony as an edge rusher. Most good to elite pass rushers have a ready-made arsenal of moves they can lean on against offensive linemen. When the man in front of them successfully counters one attack, they can rip out another without hesitation. It’s rare you see a great pass rusher always win on his first move. When Floyd is countered after his trademark loose speed rush, his individual battles too often end in a stalemate.
On a Bears defense loaded with other terrific pass rushers like Mack and Akiem Hicks, Floyd’s relative struggles on the edge are acceptable. He doesn’t have to take over a game. He doesn’t have to win one-on-one tussles. When you have to start considering paying him appropriately alongside superstars, that’s when the Bears’ underlying issue with Floyd comes into focus.
By their own account, the Bears are going to pick up the fifth-year option on Floyd’s rookie contract come May. That means he has at least two seasons left on the lakefront. Two years to prove he’s unique in one specific skill-set as to carve out a long career in Chicago. The first season, 2019, will stick out as his main proving ground.
As the Bears enter the middle of a Super Bowl window, the onus is going to be on Floyd to produce more as a pass rusher. He’s capable in setting the edge against the run. He can hold his own in coverage. But he hasn’t proven to be a dominant force you have to game-plan for, a matchup problem who tilts the field in favor of his defense. To become that kind of player, Floyd will again have to stay healthy for all 16 games – 2018 was the first season of his career he made every start – and he’ll have to do it without any sort of handicap.
New Chicago outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino has a reputation of bringing out the best in his players – he helped Terrell Suggs to a 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Award in Baltimore – and he can do much of the same for Floyd’s status. In terms of players Monachino has coached (or will coach) over the course of his career, it isn’t a stretch to say Floyd is the third-most talented behind Mack and Suggs. It’s a nice mentoring platform Floyd would do well to take advantage of in a make-or-break season.
If Floyd doesn’t emphatically improve upon his meek pass rushing numbers, he’ll stand to be in line for a contract similar to what the Vikings’ Anthony Barr received this off-season. Barr, like Floyd, is more of a versatile linebacker who situationally rushes the pass rusher and is deployed everywhere by Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer. The major difference between Floyd and Barr’s resumes is Barr can lean on four career Pro Bowl selections to zero for Floyd. In the event of a contract extension, this should put the Bears in a negotiating realm of four years, $48 million and around $13 million guaranteed for Floyd.
Those figures are each a little less than the more accomplished Barr, and takes into account Floyd’s advanced age (28) by the time an extension would kick in. Those figures shift with more commitments if Floyd were to explode as a pass rusher. But until further notice, he’s a semi-valuable Swiss Army Knife and nothing more.
The difference between good and great is smaller than you think. If football’s a cliche game of inches, then it’s a mere one percent or less making the difference between a good and elite player. Leonard Floyd is verifiable as a solid, reliable player for the Bears. The burden of proof is on him to show he can take his game up a notch, if only for a few inches. His future at Halas Hall may depend on it.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.