At this point last off-season, Chicago Bears outside linebackers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston were far from healthy.
Houston was recovering from a torn ACL, while Young was attempting to bounce back from a Week 16 torn Achilles. The duo did not participate in team activities during OTAs and minicamp, and were very limited during training camp.
In fact, neither player fully recovered from his injury until midway through the 2015 regular season. Through the first eight games last year, Houston and Young combined for 12 total tackles and 2.0 sacks.
They played low-end rotational snaps and their impact on the field was minimal, so much so that rumors began to swirl about both players being traded.
Yet things changed during the second half of the campaign, when Young and Houston finally reached full health. Through the final eight games, they combined for 60 tackles and 12.5 sacks.
That is a phenomenal turnaround for two veteran edge rushers coming off serious leg injuries.
Fortunately for the Bears, they managed to avoid injury the remainder of the year and enter 2016 full healthy.
The impact of Young and Houston at 100-percent health cannot be overstated. Remember, Young led the team in 2014 with 10 sacks, so he's a proven double-digit sack producer, while Houston had a career high 8.0 sacks last season.
With Houston, the sky is the limit. The 29-year-old was an experienced 3-4 OLB with the Raiders who shifted to a 4-3 with the Bears in 2014. The results were less than ideal, with Houston picking up 1.0 sack before tearing up his knee in arguably the dumbest moment in Chicago sports history.
In coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 system, Houston excelled as a pass rusher and showed why he's a perfect fit in the new defensive scheme. On top of that, Houston is one of the best 3-4 OLBs in the league in defending the run, on par with teammate Pernell McPhee.
For Young, it's been the opposite. He was a 4-3 defensive end his first five years in the NFL and was forced to learn a new position last season. That, combined with the Achilles injury, severely affected his performance and playing time during the early part of the campaign.
Yet after accepting his new role and returning to full health, he went on a tear, picking up at least one sack in five straight games between Weeks 11-15. Young has stated numerous times he's still a 4-3 DE but that's more of an inside joke than any real desire to be part of a different defensive scheme. And like Houston, Young is also very solid against the run, where his long arms and ability to shed blocks have a lot of value.
So with both players healthy heading into training camp, what can we expect from Houston and Young in 2016?
McPhee in 2015 - his first year as a full-time starter in the NFL - came out of the gates on fire, racking up 33 tackles and 5.0 sacks through the first eight games. Yet he was a shell of his former self after injuring his knee and had just 1.0 sack over the remaining eight games, two of which he sat out due to injury.
With his knee still bothering him now months from his scope, along with his history of knee problems, it's clear that McPhee needs to assume more of a rotational role similar to the one he played in Baltimore. That means Houston and Young, as well as Floyd, should get full rotational snaps throughout the 2016 season.
With that being the case, figure Young and Houston will each receive roughly 600 snaps this year.
Young did his damage last season playing 532 snaps, so we should see a slight uptick from his 2015 numbers, potentially to 40 tackles and 8-9 sacks. Houston played 425 snaps last season, so if he's on the field for 600 snaps this year, his production could exceed 60 tackles and 10 sacks.
When you factor in 8-9 sacks from McPhee, and we'll guess 6 sacks for Floyd, then we're looking at an OLB unit that could tally 34 sacks this season. When you consider the Bears as a team had just 35 total sacks in 2015, which ranked 22nd in the NFL, that's a substantial increase in pressure off the edges.
If the Bears are able to push the pocket from the interior of the defensive line, particularly with third-round 3-tech Jonathan Bullard, then they should easily be able to jump into the NFL's Top 10 in team sacks next season.
That would be huge for a defense that has serious concerns in the secondary. If those edge rushers can collapse the pocket consistently, the lack of talent at corner and safety won't have as big of an impact.
With Young and Houston healthy, McPhee won't be overworked, Floyd can be slowly worked into the rotation and the secondary won't have to cover as long. That's a win-win-win.
There were rumors about the Bears potentially trading Houston and/or Young this off-season, but when you consider their value against both the run and pass, it's easy to see why GM Ryan Pace stood firm at the outside linebacker position.null