Draft analysis: Bears love Khalil Mack, must develop depth behind him

April 15, 2019 0 By Today news

The last time the Bears handed out the largest contract in franchise history — to quarterback Jay Cutler— it didn’t take long to for some to have buyer’s remorse.

Not so with Khalil Mack.

On Sept. 1, the Bears gave up a lot for the privilege of making Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history: two first-round picks — including this year’s — plus a third-rounder in 2020 and sixth-rounder later this month. They got back a second-round pick and conditional fifth-rounder next season and handed Mack a six-year, $141 million contract.

Seven-plus months later, it’s clear they’d do it again.

“He transformed the team on both sides of the ball,” chairman George McCaskey said last month. “I thought [general manager] Ryan [Pace] said it very well: When your best players are your hardest workers, that’s a good thing.

“I think having the defense really helped [quarterback] Mitchell [Trubisky]’s development. It didn’t have to be all on him.”

Mack earned his fourth Pro Bowl berth last year despite having no training camp preparation. His 12 ½ sacks — in only 14 games — were the most in a season for any Bears player not named Richard Dent. His work ethic has been beyond reproach — Mack made it a point to train during the Rams-Patriots Super Bowl, a reminder of the Bears’ ultimate goal.

“He’s hungry,” coach Matt Nagy said.

The constant attention given Mack on the field was good for Leonard Floyd — eventually. A hand injury contributed to the former first-round pick’s slow start to the season. Through the Bears’ first eight regular-season games, Floyd had only two quarterback hits and no sacks. In the last eight, though, Floyd posted 10 hits and four sacks.

Floyd’s flourish was enough for Pace to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, which cements he and Mack as the Bears’ starting edge rushers for the next two seasons.

As he did last year, Aaron Lynch will back up both. The Bears re-signed the veteran earlier this month to a one-year deal with a $1 million base salary and $1.4 million salary cap hit.

After cutting Sam Acho last month, the Bears are left without a proven player at their fourth outside linebacker spot.

The team could draft one later this month to compete with Isaiah Irving, Josh Woods and last year’s sixth-round pick, Kylie Fitts. Irving posted one sack in 116 snaps last year — more than half those downs came in two games — while Fitts was blanked in 58 snaps. Woods was on the practice squad.

When new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano arrived in January, he stressed the importance of developing those young players.

“Pagano will say, ‘It’s on us to grow these young outside linebackers,’” Pace said last month. “We take ownership of that. As an evaluator, you love hearing coaches talk that way in growing your younger players, so I think it’s more of a philosophical belief that that’s going to continue to happen.”

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. The Bears have Khalil Mack under contract for another six years, Leonard Floyd for another two and Aaron Lynch for 2019. Still, you can never have enough pass rushers. General manager Ryan Pace has never shied away from investing in two areas: quarterback and those who sack the quarterback.

On the roster: Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, Kylie Fitts, Isaiah Irving and Josh Woods.

The five best draftees: Ohio State’s Nick Bosa; Kentucky’s Josh Allen; Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat; Florida State’s Brian Burns; and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell.

Keep an eye on: Where Montez Sweat lands. Nick Bosa and Josh Allen could both go in the draft’s top three, but Sweat’s projection is more complicated. Tests at the NFL Scouting Combine reportedly showed a pre-existing heart condition. First-round teams that want to invest in the Mississippi State pass-rusher need to be comfortable with his medical evaluations.

Close to home:  Sutton Smith totaled 29 sacks over the past two years at Northern Illinois. Among all Div. I-A players, he ranked third in sacks per game in 2017 and fourth in 2018. He was named a first-team All-American and the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year after both seasons. The problem, at least at the next level: Smith measured only 6 feet tall at the combine. Unless a team gets creative, the converted running back looks like a special teams body — or even a candidate for a position switch.

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