Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery didn’t do much right this past offseason. He signed Jay Cutler, Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen to big, multi-year contracts, while his seven draft picks all appear questionable selections at best.
Yet not every move Emery made blew up in his face. The signing of defensive end Willie Young to a three-year, $9 million contract was easily his best personnel decision of 2014.
Young leads the team with 10.0 sacks and has been solid in run support as well. It was a breakout season for the former seventh-round selection.
Unfortunately for the Bears, Young suffered a significant injury in yesterday’s loss to the Detroit Lions. Young left the field in the second half with an Achilles injury and it’s being reported today that it’s a rupture.
"That's a tough one," head coach Marc Trestman said today. "He has kind of been an inspirational leader. You guys know him in the locker room. He's a charismatic guy. He keeps people up. He's fun to be around. He's a guy who is always up and around the building and has played well and gotten better throughout the season. He'll be missed on Sunday certainly."
Of all the injuries to befall Chicago this season, this one is the most significant. Young was emerging as the team’s best edge rusher, a player the Bears could build around going forward. The injury now clouds his future, both in the short- and long-term.
Ruptured Achilles can take up to 12 months to heal and, in some cases, can end a player’s career. According to data collected in 2010, 36 percent of players who ruptured their Achilles during a five-year period from 1997-2002 never returned to the field. That’s one third of all cases, which is significant.
Of the 31 players who suffered the injury during that times pan, “21 returned to play in the NFL at an average of 11 months after the injury.” And players who did return to the field were far less effective than they were pre-injury.
Young will turn 30 at the start of the 2015 campaign. He’s not a young player who has five-plus years ahead of him. If there are complications in his recovery, he’ll miss next season and may not play another snap until he’s 31. Can the Bears really count on him then?
It’s an unfortunate situation for a player that was just coming into his own. If Young plays at all next season at anywhere near an effective level, it will be a bonus. In reality, the team needs to assume he won’t play in 2015 and make alternate plans.
That will seriously shift the club’s offseason list of priorities. At defensive end, the Bears hope Lamarr Houston can return to form after tearing his ACL this season. Yet anyone who saw Nate Collins try to plant off his surgically repaired knee during training camp this year knows how serious knee injuries can be for defensive linemen. Like Young, the Bears must assume that Houston won’t be the same player he was before the injury until at least 2016.
Jared Allen was signed to a four-year deal this offseason yet has produced just 5.5 sacks, a career low. If the Bears cut Allen before the third day of the 2015 season, they’ll be on the hook for just $1 million in guaranteed money, clearing $11.5 million off the books. So it’s highly unlikely Allen will be on the roster next year.
Year in and year out in the NFL, the worst defenses are almost always the ones that struggle to pressure the passer. Even average NFL signal callers will carve up opposing defenses if given time in the pocket.
If the Bears truly want to resurrect the defense, they need a consistent playmaking defensive end. There are needs at nearly every position on defense, yet everyone’s job will be made easier and everyone will play better if a stud edge rusher is harassing the opposing quarterback.
As a result, defensive end becomes the top priority for the Bears this offseason, both in free agency and the draft. The cupboard, for all intents and purposes, is bare. If the club can’t fill it, there’s no reason to believe the defense will be any better next season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.