Why Cutting Leonard Floyd Made Linebacker a Bears Draft Need
When Leonard Floyd left Halas Hall for good, many applauded the departure of a player who came off the edge without finishing the rush with sacks.
It's true, Floyd didn't get enough sacks.
It's also true the Bears relied defensively on Floyd's versatility to create problems in coverage or against the run.
So in signing Robert Quinn the addressed the sack issue but opened up a whole new problem. They now lack the rush or cover potential at that outside linebacker position.
The Bears signed Barkevious Mingo because he's perceived as a possible edge rusher/coverage type, but with 10 sacks in a seven-year career it's not likely he'll do more in the rush than Floyd did.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has used Danny Trevathan as that strong pass coverage linebacker in the past and will plan to again now that the defensive signal caller is back, but Trevathan is turning 30 this season and never has been at his best in pass coverage.
One way the Bears could solve their problem is to draft one of the all-purpose linebackers available in the draft. Two from the Big Ten in particular are intriguing because of their versatility, Wisconsin's Zack Baun and Michigan's Josh Uche.
Both could fit into a 4-3 as outside linebacker or a 3-4 as an edge or they could move back inside in the 3-4 on some downs in coverage. They moved extensively in college.
"I can drop into coverage, I can rush the passer," Baun told reporters at the NFL combine. "I just feel like my athleticism and my versatility is what I do best. And things I can work on are all techniques and things that can be fixable."
Teams talking to Baun told him they might consider using him the same way Wisconsin did and deploy him all over the field.
"One of the teams identified me as like 'the toy' – a can-do-it-all linebacker, give me the opportunity to rush the edge, play off the ball, drop into coverage, use all my skill sets to the fullest."
Baun is 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, more the size of an inside linebacker. Yet he produced 12 1/2 sacks last year as a Wisconsin senior lining up for pass rush off the edge but not exclusively there.
"Obviously I got the opportunity sit behind a lot of great Badgers linebackers in my time at Wisconsin," Baun said. "Early on I found myself trying to mimic what they do. I realized I can't do the same things T.J. Watt can do. I can't do the same thing Joe Schobert can do. But I can take bits and pieces of each one off their game and implement them into my own game and kind of create my own style and that's what I've done."
In the NFL Baun has seen teams do this with linebackers.
"There's guys like (Miami Dolphins') Kyle Van Noy, as well that do a lot of different things in a really cool scheme," Baun said. "He's able top lay on the ball, off the ball and kind of show his athletic ability through the position he's playing."
Uche's description of his abilities sound similar to Baun's, although he appears on film to have an ability to drop deeper in coverage.
"I believe I'm a linebacker that can play off the ball first two downs, then third down go get the quarterback," Uche said. "So right now talking to teams, I think that's the feel I'm getting.
"It also depends on the scheme. If it's a 3-4 then obviously I'll be on the edge, but if it's a 4-3 team that's what it's looking like."
In the 3-4 used by the Bears, Uche could be like Floyd and drop or rush off the edge. But Floyd frequently dropped into coverage over the middle, especially when the Bears blitzed.
Uche had 7 1/2 sacks last year, and 15 1/2 for his career, while making 10 1/2 tackles for loss last season.
At Michigan he practiced frequently off the ball but usually was on it during games.
"So everyday in practice I was practicing off the ball, so I had to learn how to do that," the 6-2, 250-pound Uche said. "Run fits, different gaps, zone coverages, man coverages, it's just that you guys saw me on the ball a lot pass rushing. But I actually did off the ball things everyday in practice."
Uche has talked to several 3-4 teams, chiefly the Steelers, Ravens and Packers.
He called 2018 a key season in his development. He had played in only five games for the Wolverines until then but started 21 games the last two years. It let his ability to cover tight ends on passes come to the forefront.
"It definitely gave me a platform to display what I know I can do," he said. "I'm versatile and I can do a multitude of things at a very high level. But it's definitely the pass rush aspect of it. I feel like I'm one of the best edge rushers in this draft class and also one of the best linebackers in this draft class, as well. I can do everything from cover, play off ball linebacker, and play on the edge too."
To select players like Uche or Baun, the Bears likely would have to neglect some need positions like cornerback or safety in Round 2. They could acquire more picks by trading down and still be in position for top all-around outside linebackers like Baun and Uche.
It might give them versatility as well as the outside rusher who can finish with the sack the way they thought Floyd would when they traded up to No. 9 and selected him in 2016.