The Chicago Bears came into the 2015 season with many questions surrounding the outside linebacker position.
Would Pernell McPhee live up to his big contract? Would Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, both coming off major surgeries, be able to find their previous form? Where did Jared Allen fit in the new 3-4 defense? And who would provide the edge balance against the run?
Let's look back at the performance of the outside linebackers this season to answer those questions.
The Bears signed McPhee to a five-year, $38.75 million contract at the start of free agency, despite him never before being a full-time starter in four seasons for the Ravens. He was coming off a 2014 season in which he racked up 7.5 sacks, despite not starting a single contest.
At 6-3, 275, McPhee proved to be an intimidating force off the edge. He brought physicality and nastiness to Chicago's defense, something that had been missing since Brian Urlacher's departure.
Against the run, he was a beast, demonstrating a consistent ability to set the edge. He was aggressive in attacking blocks and ball carriers, and showed good burst chasing down running backs from the back side.
As a pass rusher, it took McPhee a few games to find his groove but once he did, he was nearly unstoppable. In the five-game span between Weeks 3-8, he tallied 24 tackles, 5.0 sacks and an interception. He was everything the Bears had hoped he would be and more. He finished the season with a team-high 48 QB hurries (4th most in the NFL among 3-4 OLBs) and 16 QB hits (3rd most in the league at his position).
Yet McPhee suffered a knee injury in the Week 9 contest against the Chargers and was never the same. The knee forced him out of two contests and severely limited him down the stretch. In seven games played between Weeks 9-17, he recorded just 20 tackles and 1.0 sack.
What's troubling is McPhee's history of knee problems. He had arthroscopic surgery on his knee following his rookie year, which he admitted took him more than a year to recover. Which is why, during his second and third seasons in the NFL, he recorded just 3.5 total sacks. He then came to Chicago, playing full-time starter reps for the first time in his career, and again hurt his knee by mid-season.
That's definitely cause for concern. McPhee ended the year with 6.0 sacks, third most on the team, yet he had the club's fourth highest contract. Those numbers don't add up, which is why his health will be a crucial factor in McPhee's success going forward.
Houston tore his ACL last season in what will go down as one of the dumbest plays in Bears franchise history. The subsequent surgery forced him out of off-season activities and he was slowly worked back into the mix.
He saw limited action through the first half of the season, accumulating just 1.0 sack through Week 8. Yet in Week 9, Houston flipped the switch, picking up 2.0 sacks in San Diego, both on the Chargers' potential game-winning drive. It was all downhill from that point.
Over the final eight weeks of the campaign, Houston had 7.0 sacks and finished the year with a team-high, and career-high, 8.0 sacks. With McPhee hobbled, Houston stepped in and picked up the slack, carrying Chicago's pass rush during the second half of the season. In addition, he was outstanding against the run, which is arguably the strongest area of his game.
When finally healthy, Houston emerged as the edge force the Bears believed him to be when they signed him as a free agent out of Oakland two years ago. If he continues to stay healthy, there's no reason Houston can't improve on his comeback campaign in 2015.
Like Houston, Young was coming off major surgery this year after tearing his Achilles in the 2014 season finale. Having always been a 4-3 DE, many didn't believe Young would make the final 53-man roster coming out of training camp due to the team's switch to 3-4 system.
He was methodically worked into the OLB rotation and was sparsely used during the first half of the year. Yet, also like Houston, Young finally became fully healthy by mid-season, at which point he began playing like a man possessed.
In Week 9, Young intercepted a pass and returned it 39 yards. He then picked up at least one sack in each of his next five games and finished the year with 6.5 sacks, 33 QB hurries and 7 QB hits, all of which were second most on the roster.
Not only that but Young was just as strong against the run, where his length and ability to shed blockers proved vital in stopping opposing ball carriers.
In 2016, Young will enter the final season of his three-year deal, yet even at age 30, he appears to have plenty left in the tank.
Acho did very little as a pass rusher in 2015. He had just 2 QB hurries and no sacks. As a result, he was used primarily on run downs.
Yet Acho was outstanding against opposing rushing attacks. While McPhee, Houston and Young all played well against the run, Acho outplayed them all as a run defender, showing extreme power at the point of attack.
Allen, a 4-3 defensive end his entire career, actually played fairly well as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Yet he was unable to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks and, as a result, he asked for a trade after just three weeks.
Allen was sent to Carolina where he helped the Panthers to a league-best 15-1 record. Unfortunately, he fractured his foot in yesterday's contest against the Seahawks and could miss the rest of the playoffs.
McPhee, Houston and Young are all under contract for next season and Acho deserves another one-year deal. It can be argued that, with those four, outside linebacker is the strongest and deepest position on the roster.
There will be no need for GM Ryan Pace to pay big money in free agency or use early draft picks on edge rushers. The Bears have arguably the top trio of all-around OLBs in the NFL, and McPhee and Houston are 27 and 28 respectively.
This is a solid unit that doesn't need any tweaking, which will allow Pace to focus his attention on other, more-pressing areas of need.