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Let’s review the past calendar year of Bears OLB Leonard Floyd: adjoined with arguably the game’s most feared bookend in Khalil Mack; broke his right hand in the preseason and failed to produce a sack in the first eight games, the longest such streak of his career; followed that funk with his best eight-game stretch as a pro and earned his first Pro Bowl recognition and NFC North title; had his 2020 option picked up at a cost of $13.2 million; described by his new position coach as a more natural pass rusher than Mack; and, most recently, tabbed by three-time Super Bowl champion and the NFL's all-time postseason sack leader Willie McGinest as this season’s biggest breakout pass rusher.
The best part, Bears fans? It’s still all in front of Floyd.
“[He's] a different animal,” said Bears LB Danny Trevathan, who arrived in Chicago the same offseason as Floyd, the speedy and sinewy 26-year-old Georgia product. “There’s a lot on his plate, but you know he’s hungry and you can see that he has that attitude. Last year he was a little down. Didn’t start off the way he wanted. But this year he’s attacking it."
Even as he was setting sturdy edges and covering well, Floyd's confidence and hand usage as a pass rusher clearly was down early last season, when he was forced to don a big protective club on his hand in the first three games. It wasn't until the visit to Miami in Week 6, when Mack suffered his high ankle sprain early in the contest, that Floyd began coming to life.
Mack missed his first NFL game the following week and, by Week 8 in Buffalo, when he again was out and the trade deadline came and went with rumblings on Floyd never materializing, he fully sprung to life with his first career pick-six but only his second QB hurry of his still-sack-less campaign.
"I don’t think we’ve seen what he can or can’t do until these last couple of games," then-Bears DC Vic Fangio said at the time.
And over his tremendous finish to 2018, Floyd averaged a tackle for loss and QB hurry each over his final nine games, adding five sacks.
"He is certainly explosive and you did see that grow as the year went on, and I think he's picked up right where he left off," new OLB coach Ted Monachino said. "I don't think he's got to take one step back to take three more steps forward. I think he's going to start right where he left off from and he's going to fly."
And if Floyd picks up where he left off at the end of last season, he could position himself well for the kind of fat contract extension other late-blooming edge rushers like Dee Ford and Trey Flowers have collected of late.
Of more immediate importance to the Bears, the Floyd we saw in the second half of 2018 showing up for the start of this season would create for opposing offensive coordinators a significant quandary: who requires their full attention on a defense that also boasts Mack and perhaps the game's most underrated inside pass rusher, Akiem Hicks?
"He wants to be the guy that you go to, you got to block him with two or he’s going to get to that quarterback — and that’s his whole attitude this year," Trevathan said.
Could Floyd, then, be the incumbent who helps mitigate the few personnel departures and almost wholesale coaching turnover on the NFL's stingiest, most opportunistic 'D' last season?
Arguably none of Chuck Pagano's other defenders, save for perhaps fellow former Bulldog Roquan Smith, boast Floyd's versatility — shining in space and making great strides vs. the run, in addition to that natural pass-rush tool box to which Monachino and McGinest mentioned. Then there's the likelihood of that tool box expanding, perhaps to include more of the knifing twists and stunts that can accentuate Floyd's length and agility and complement Chicago's loaded front, for instance.
We've been talking a lot this offseason about the new kinds of "problems" — good problems, if you will — facing these Bears. And Trevathan summed up one of them well in describing how opponents might handle the challenges Chicago can pose up front with Floyd, Mack and others.
"Ranch and blue cheese, you got to pick one or the other," he said. "I just know those guys love the game of football and they’re going to get after it."