Bears have a huge decision to make with Leonard Floyd before the start of the new league year

As the Bears look to reverse regression after they followed up their 12-win season with a disappointing 8-8 campaign, they’re forced to upgrade their roster without much draft capital or cap space. It’s put general manager Ryan Pace in a tricky spot (one of his own doing, of course). As such, he has a difficult question to answer in the coming days: Commit $13.2 million to outside linebacker Leonard Floyd for the 2020 season or cut him free?

Floyd, the ninth-overall pick in 2016, is entering the final year of his rookie contract — a fifth-year option that the Bears exercised a year ago. On March 18, the start of the new league year, his salary will become fully guaranteed. Essentially, the Bears need to decide by March 18 if they’re willing to pay him $13.2 million for his services during the upcoming season. 

As of March 10, the Bears are working with roughly $24 million in available cap space. But they still need to commit money at inside linebacker, where both Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski are impending unrestricted free agents; they should re-sign at least one to start alongside Roquan Smith in the teeth of their defense. They’ve got a hole at right guard with Kyle Long having retired. They need help in the secondary after cutting Prince Amukamara and with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix hitting free agency. Most importantly, they need to bring in an upgrade at quarterback over Mitchell Trubisky or at the very least, legitimate competition, which will cost cap space and/or trade compensation. To put another way, resources are limited.

So it should come as no huge surprise to hear that according to the Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs, “some” around the league believe the Bears “could part ways” with Leonard before that date.

“We’re like every team,” a source told the Tribune. “Our personnel team puts together a list of players that could be cap casualties and his name popped up. He’s probably on the same list all around the league.”

An easy way to circumvent the decision altogether would be to reach a long-term contract extension that lowers Floyd’s cap hit in 2020. But Floyd doesn’t have much financial incentive to do so. He’s better off taking the largest one-year salary of his career and betting on himself to piece together a strong contract year. If he does, he’ll be hitting free agency at age 28, which would either result in a more lucrative long-term deal than one he’d sign right now or at the very least, the franchise tag. The one thing Floyd shouldn’t do is sign a long-term deal after a three-sack season.

So, the Bears likely need to make a decision by next week. It might not be easy for Pace to arrive at that decision. There are pros and cons to each side of the debate.

The case for cutting Floyd

Simply put, Floyd’s production from a pass-rushing standpoint doesn’t justify a $13.2 million salary, which ranks as the 18th-highest cap hit among edge rushers in 2020. For the sake of comparison, an edge rusher like Preston Smith of the Packers has a $13.5 million cap hit this year.

Smith registered a career-high 12 sacks in 2019, his first season in Green Bay. Floyd’s generated only 18.5 sacks in four seasons. He’s yet to match the career-high (7.0) he established in his rookie season. When Khalil Mack arrived in 2018, it was considered to be the move that would help Floyd break out with Mack drawing constant attention on the other side of the line of scrimmage. But in two seasons with Mack, Floyd has tallied only seven sacks in 32 games (Mack has played in 30 of those games).

With the Bears working under tight salary cap restrictions and with multiple voids to fill as they look to re-emerge as a playoff team, they might not be able to justify paying an edge rusher $13.2 million who doesn’t often take down quarterbacks. They could save that money and reinvest a portion of it in a cheaper short-term option in free agency, while using the rest of the money elsewhere.

The case for keeping Floyd

For one, sacks aren’t the only metric we should use to judge Floyd. He’s not always tasked with rushing the passer. He drops back into coverage a fair amount — more than some fans would like to see — and he’s strong against the run. Even though the two lowest sack totals of his career came in the past two seasons, his approximate value has been higher the past two seasons (17) than it was during his first two seasons (12). 

“We’re happy with Leonard,” Pace said, per the Tribune. “I know the stats don’t always say that but Leonard does a lot of things that I think may be a little bit undervalued. I think the versatility that he provides, the things he can do in coverage. There aren’t a lot of outside linebackers that can provide the versatility that he provides. Would we like more production from him? Yeah. Would he like that? Yeah. But there’s a lot of things that he does that we like.”

His versatility allows the Bears to deploy him in a variety of ways. 

“He’s close in a lot of areas when you look at the pressures and those things,” Pace said. “He just needs to finish a little better on the quarterback. But I think when you’re evaluating him, you have to factor in everything. His run defense, his ability in coverage. We consider him our Sam outside linebacker, so we value what he can do in coverage and think sometimes that goes a little underrated for a guy that’s of his stature. Not many outside linebackers can drop in coverage like he does.”

Plus, with Mack and Akiem Hicks, the Bears necessarily don’t need Floyd to produce double-digit sack seasons. Defensive lineman Nick Williams also broke out with six sacks in a limited role last season. In 2018, when Hicks was healthy and Mack played like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the Bears tied for third in sacks with 50. While Floyd failed to make the leap, Mack’s production cooled, and Hicks spent significant time on the sidelines hurt in 2019, which resulted in the Bears falling to the bottom half of the league in sacks with 32, the Bears’ defense still remained one of the league’s best, ranking eighth by DVOA. 

To put another way, even with low sack totals from Floyd, this Bears defense has ranged from incredible to good. They’ve been successful and Floyd has played a role in their success.

Furthermore, the Bears shouldn’t want to give up on a promising player who is still only 27 years old. Signs of a major breakout have manifested itself in blips, most notably against the Packers. Floyd has 7.5 sacks in eight career games against the Bears’ nemesis. It’s about getting more consistency from him as a pass rusher, because the potential for more is so clearly there still. 

It’s hard to believe Pace would want to give up on Floyd, especially given his track record with first-round picks. There was receiver Kevin White (seventh overall in 2015), who appeared in 14 total games with the Bears. And of course, there was Trubisky (second overall in 2017) — there’s no need to rehash that mistake, because we’re all well-versed in it by now. The only first-round pick Pace has hit on has been Smith (eight overall in 2018). One would think that Pace wants to give Floyd more time to develop, so his own track record isn’t called into question even more than it already is (in fairness to Pace, he’s done well to find good players in the mid-to-late rounds).

So, what will the Bears do?

If I had to offer an unconfident guess, I’d guess the Bears will bring Floyd back. 

I think they want to keep as many pieces on defense after already cutting Amukamara and with multiple key players hitting free agency. The defense doesn’t need to be blown up. It’s the offense that needs major change. Floyd has been a key component on defense, even if he hasn’t recorded the sack numbers expected of him. And he’s still young enough to blossom in 2020 and beyond.

That said, there’s a very real chance Floyd already is who he’s going to be for the remainder of his career. It’s not like he was some elite sacker at Georgia, where he never hit double digits in three years, averaging 5.7 per season. Floyd’s value is in his versatility, not his ability to bring down quarterbacks. 

The Bears now have to decide just how much they value that as they look to improve their roster with limited resources.  

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