LAKE FOREST – The Chicago Bears finished the 2017 season seventh in the NFL in quarterback sacks with 42 and sixth in quarterback sack percentage, even though 5-technique end Akiem Hicks (8 ½) was the only player on the team with more than 4 ½ sacks.
But the Bears three best pass rushers after Hicks and Leonard Floyd — Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston — have all moved on.
Enter outside linebacker and edge rusher Aaron Lynch. A free-agent arrival from San Francisco, he notched an exciting rookie performance under coordinator Vic Fangio before his coach moved on to the Bears, and has had (to quote Fangio) a “checkered career” before and after.
Lynch appears to agree with Fangio’s analysis and says he’s thrilled to be reunited with his former coach.
“I mean, it's been great. You know it's exciting getting back with Vic, I know his defense," Lynch said Tuesday before the first of three Bears' mandatory veteran minicamp practices at Halas Hall.
“So, being it's something I'm used to and the fresh start, I've had my ups and downs in this league, and it's just nice to come here to people with open arms that believe in me. Now I've just got to come here and play football, so it feels amazing.”
Lynch started his college career as a Freshman All American at Notre Dame, and appeared to be heading toward a dominant college career before becoming homesick for the Tampa area and electing to transfer to South Florida.
Lynch was forced to sit out a season because of transfer rules and ended up playing just one season at South Florida.
Scouts were concerned over noticeable fluctuations in his weight, which Lynch chalked up to his use of prescription Adderall.
Former Pro Football Weekly personnel guru Nolan Nawrocki noted in his scouting report on Lynch prior to the 2014 draft, “outstanding size, including long arms and large hands. Has a giant wingspan and can corral ballcarriers.
“Classic underachiever, questionable motor, effort and desire. Leaves production on the field. Does not play with passion and lacks urgency.”
Still, the 49ers surprised many by using the 150th pick in the ’14 draft on Lynch, before his college strength coach, Hans Straub, essentially called out Lynch on Twitter by saying the 49ers weren’t making integrity and character a priority. Straub resigned after the public comment.
As a rookie under Fangio, Lynch demonstrated outstanding pass-rush skills, notching six sacks and starting three games at the end of the season, and then adding 6 ½ sacks in 2015 in 14 games.
But adversity arrived again, as Lynch was suspended the first four games of the 2016 season following an inconclusive urine sample and appeared to disappear playing in just seven games each in 2016 and 2017, totaling 1 ½ and one sack, respectively.
Can Lynch be the next Akiem Hicks for the Bears?
Hicks, who has become a Pro Bowl-level player and outstanding leader in Chicago, was caught up in a recruiting scandal at LSU, apparently far more of the school’s than his making, and was mostly a nonfactor in New Orleans and New England before flourishing with the Bears.
Like Hicks, Lynch is huge for his position at 6-5, 260-plus pounds and an excellent athlete.
When I asked him Tuesday what his personal goals for his first season in Chicago are, he seemed uncertain at first.
“Personal goals? I’m not really a person that tries to attack something head-on as far as that goal.
“As a defense, these guys have been real strong in the past and had a pretty good year last year. I want to bring what I can bring to the table, and those personal goals will fall into place when they fall into place.”
Lynch is a low-risk gamble on a one-year, prove it deal, and if he can recapture what he discovered with Fangio the first time around in San Francisco, it will go a long way toward replacing the pass-rush production the Bears lost this offseason.