Mack was the star, but not the Chicago Bears’ only impact OLB
It took less than one half of one game for OLB Khalil Mack to demonstrate that he was well worth the two first-round picks that Bears G.M. Ryan Pace gave up to bring a superior talent to an already-excellent defense.
In the first 30 minutes of the Bears’ season opener in Green Bay, Mack tallied a sack, a forced fumble and a pick-6. In his first four games as a Bear, Mack had five sacks and four forced fumbles, and that was without the benefit of even one day of training camp or one preseason snap.
When he was asked after the season if he felt good about the price he paid for Mack, Pace’s answer was short: “100 percent.”
Mack finished with 12.5 sacks, his fourth straight season with more than 10. He made his fourth straight Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro for the third time in four years, justifying the six-year, $141-million deal that made him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.
Mack was everything expected as a pass rusher, impacting multiple games all by himself. He also was an impact player vs. the run, a part of his game that sometimes gets overlooked. And, when opponents double- or triple-teamed him, he created opportunities for teammates. And they helped him as well, as departed defensive coordinator Vic Fangio pointed out.
“Anytime you can add a special player to your defense, it’s going to do nothing but help you -- and help other players,” Fangio said. “But he was that special of a player in Oakland, and they were never anything more than a mid-20s, 25th-ranked defense, whatever it was. He’s playing with better players here than he ever had around him there. (Put) better players around a special talent like that, and you get good results.”
Nearly lost in the glow of Mack’s brilliance was the Bears’ “other” outside linebacker, Leonard Floyd, who had his best season yet. For the first time in three years, the athletically gifted Floyd played all 16 games. Though his stats pale in comparison to Mack’s, Floyd took another step toward reaching the potential the Bears saw in him when they made him their first-round draft pick (ninth overall) in 2016.
Floyd had four sacks and was third on the team with nine tackles for loss and tied for third with 11 QB hits. In addition to his pass-rush acumen, the rangy, 6-foot-4 Floyd has the speed and movement skills to drop into coverage, and the Bears intend to pick up his fifth-year option.
“He played well and we’re happy where he’s at,” Pace said. “I feel like Leonard is still doing a lot of things (to get better), and I think he felt that as the season was still going on.”
Aaron Lynch played on a one-year, make-good deal for $4 million and, though he flashed the rare skills he possesses for a 6-foot-6, 270-pound edge rusher, he also disappeared for long stretches.
But Lynch was a solid backup to Mack and Floyd and a more productive player than Isaiah Irving, who was undrafted out of San Jose State in 2017. Irving still has upside as a pass rusher, but he needs to take another step in his development. Sixth-round draft pick Kyle Fitts showed a burst off the edge in the preseason but struggled to earn a jersey on game days. He was active for just seven games and demonstrated that he was at least a year away from contributing.
Most improved: Floyd.
Best play: Mack’s 27-yard interception return for a touchdown in the season opener against the Packers was huge, but his forced fumble on a sack of Cardinals QB Sam Bradford in Week Three was more crucial. The Bears had clawed back from a 14-0 deficit with 13 unanswered points, but the Cardinals were looking to stretch their lead after driving to the fringe of the red zone early in the fourth quarter. With the pocket collapsing, Bradford bolted but was stripped by Mack. Danny Trevathan recovered for the Bears at their 16-yard line, and they drove to the game-winning field goal with 4:31 remaining.
Key stat: Mack became the second player since 1994, when forced fumbles were first recorded, to get one in each of the first four weeks of a season.
Room for improvement: The Bears need Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts to provide more depth and more pass rush behind Mack and Floyd, especially if Lynch leaves in free agency.