In the Chicago Bears defense under coordinator Vic Fangio, pass rush comes primarily from the outside linebacker position.
This is true for every 3-4 defense but OLB carries even more weight on passing downs in Chicago, as Fangio is not as blitz-heavy as some of his 3-4 counterparts. By no means does Fangio's defense resemble that of former Steelers DC Dick LeBeau, whose exotic blitz schemes were the driving force for Pittsburgh's pass-rush units.
While Fangio isn't afraid to dial up an obscure or complicated rush package, he doesn't do it with high frequency. That means, on the majority of the Bears' defensive snaps, the outside linebackers will be the primary force for pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
That effort was sub-par last year, as the team finished 2015 ranked 22nd in the NFL in total sacks (35), yet that sack output should improve this season, for multiple reasons.
With that in mind, let's break down the seven outside linebackers that will be in attendance during Bears training camp this year.
McPhee, the club's big free-agent acquisition last off-season, came firing out of the gates in 2015. He was a force off the edge on passing downs, racking up five sacks in his first seven games, and showed equal prowess as a run defender.
At 6-3, 275, McPhee has the size of a defensive tackle and the power to match, while also the speed and flexibility to turn the corner. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), among 3-4 outside linebackers he ranked fourth in the NFL last year in QB hurries (48) behind only Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Tamba Hali. He also ranked 3rd in QB hits (13), behind only Miller and Elmis Dumervil.
When he's on his game, McPhee is an all-around beast who brings physicality and intensity to Chicago's defense. Yet injuries are a concern.
After tearing up the league for half a season, McPhee injured his knee in Week 8 last year and, while he only missed two games, he was never the same. He tallied just 1.0 sack his final seven games and had his knee scoped in February. Since then, he's been invisible and did not participate in OTAs or veteran minicamp.
Remember, McPhee has a history of knee injuries, so his absence is concerning. The Bears may just be playing it safe with one of their best defenders but any setbacks for his knee would have a considerable impact on the defense heading into camp.
McPhee can be a major weapon for the Bears this season, especially considering the numerous improvement made to the defensive front seven, but only if he's able to stay healthy and on the field.
After tearing his ACL midway through the 2014 campaign, Houston was little more than an observer during off-season activities last year and was limited throughout training camp. He was lightly used through the first half of the regular season, picking up just 1.0 sack through the first eight games, yet he finished strong.
In his final eight games, Houston had 7.0 sacks, which included multi-sack contests against the Lions in Week 17 and Chargers in Week 9, both of which came on San Diego's final drive, thus sealing the victory. He finished the year with a team-high and career-high 8.0 sacks.
Like McPhee, Houston is also very strong against the run, where his 6-3, 270-pound frame allows him to set the edge with authority. As an all-around 3-4 outside linebacker, he's about as solid as they come, with no glaring holes in his game. Houston is only 29, so he should have at least two or three more strong seasons ahead of him.
He enters training camp fully healthy, which is going to be a big boost to Chicago's OLB rotation the entire season.
Like Houston, Young entered the 2015 campaign rehabbing a serious injury after tearing his Achilles late in 2014. As such, he was limited during training camp, did not play during the preseason and was slowly worked into the defense during the regular season.
Sparsely used through Week 8, Young had just 4 total tackles and 1.0 sack. Yet, again like Houston, the switch flipped for Young in the second half of the year, as he tallied 5.5 sacks in his final seven games.
PFF graded Young the 11th best 3-4 OLB in the entire league last year, which is telling. On top of his 6.5 sacks, he had 7 QB hits and 33 QB hurries, while also earning the eighth highest grade at his position against the run.
The trio of Young, Houston and McPhee not only combined for 20.5 sacks last year - with Houston and Young only healthy for half the season - but they also graded as the highest run-stopping trio of 3-4 OLBs in the league.
If all three enter the 2016 campaign healthy, this group has unlimited potential on all three downs.
Floyd, the club's first-round pick, is the wildcard in this unit. He's 6-6, 235, so there are concerns about whether he has the thickness and strength to hold the point of attack, while some believe his thin frame will make him easy to block for NFL-level offensive tackles.
Those are legitimate concerns, yet what Floyd lacks in girth, he makes up for with quickness, speed and versatility. Off the snap, he's extremely explosive. His quick first step allows him to beat blockers to the edge, while he's shown good agility and flexibility when turning the corner. He also has quick feet and a good counter move.
McPhee, Houston and Young are all solid but they lack the pure speed that Floyd brings to the table. That gives him value as a pass rusher off the edge but will assist him in other areas as well. In addition to his role as an edge player, Floyd also played ILB for the Bulldogs, so he's adept in space and in coverage. During OTAs and minicamp, the Bears used him in coverage on a number of snaps, so they'll be utilizing his skill set in multiple ways.
Floyd also has potential in a rover role, which would give Fangio the opportunity to get three, or possibly all four, of his OLBs on the field at the same time.
He's a work in progress but Floyd's diverse skill set, along with his length and speed, add a new element to Chicago's defense, which could pay big dividends down the line.
Acho was used as the club's No. 4 rotational OLB last season. He finished the year with 39 tackles and 1 forced fumbles, yet no sacks.
As an edge rusher, Acho has little value, yet he's a strong defender against the run. He also has third-phase value, finishing last season with the fourth most special teams tackles on the team.
Acho has limited value and his struggles on passing downs last season are hard to overlook. He'll need a strong training camp and preseason to convince the coaching staff to keep five OLBs on the 53-man roster.
Jones started 13 games at middle linebacker last season and led the team in total tackles (86). Unfortunately, his inexperience at middle linebacker became evident as the season progressed and Jones was eventually benched.
As a result, Fangio has shifted Jones to outside linebacker, where he played his senior season at FSU. During off-season activities, he actually looked very good rushing the edge and gave the second- and third-team OTs fits on passing downs.
Jones has more potential off the edge than he did at MLB but the deck is stacked heavily against him. Even if he tears up Bourbonnais and dominates during the preseason, Jones may need to benefit from an injury to one of the top four OLBs if he's going to make the final roster.
Robertson-Harris was signed as a UDFA out of UTEP. At 6-7, 255 pounds, he has the body to play in the NFL, with long arms and a powerful upper body.
Yet his production never matched his athleticism, as he managed just 7.5 sacks in three years as a starter. He plays far too upright and doesn't have natural pass-rush ability.
Robertson-Harris plays the run very well and has a lot of potential packed into his frame, so he's a frontrunner for a spot on Chicago's practice squad.null