5 things to look for with Bears defense at camp

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee has been battling a knee injury during the offseason, leaving some wondering if he can be the difference-maker the Bears hoped for when they signed him.

    Chicago Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee has been battling a knee injury during the offseason, leaving some wondering if he can be the difference-maker the Bears hoped for when they signed him. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 7/26/2016 7:37 AM

Considering last year was the Bears' first playing a 3-4 scheme and much of the personnel had been acquired to perform in a 4-3, the results weren't bad.

But there remains much room for improvement in Year Two under coordinator Vic Fangio. The 2015 defense struggled to stop the run, ranking 26th; create turnovers (fifth fewest in the league) and get off the field on third down (29th).

 

Here are five things to look for on defense at Bears training camp.

1. Can Pernell McPhee become the full-time defensive leader the Bears thought they were getting when they signed him prior to the 2015 season?

McPhee's five-year, $38.75 million deal was Ryan Pace's first major free-agent expenditure as the Bears' general manager.

Through his first seven games, McPhee was everything the Bears were looking for as a defensive centerpiece, providing physical and emotional leadership, and overall toughness, along with 5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss.

But a left-knee injury that necessitated off-season surgery reduced the 6-foot-3, 275-pound McPhee to a nonfactor for most of the final nine games, two of which he missed completely.

McPhee did not participate in any on-field activities in the spring and summer, and it's unknown how involved he will be when training camp begins with Thursday's first practice.

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Despite the attention given to first-round pick Leonard Floyd and the two new inside linebackers, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, McPhee's health and his ability to affect the game vs. the run and pass may be the biggest factor in any defensive improvement.

2. Actual big-play-making, restaurant-quality inside linebackers.

The argument can be made that inside linebacker is the only position that has been significantly upgraded over last year's 6-10 squad because of the addition of veteran unrestricted free agents Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.

Last year's starting inside 'backers -- Shea McClellin and Christian Jones -- played a combined 1,412 snaps and had just 4 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, no interceptions and 1 forced fumble.

As the leading tackler on each of the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl teams in 2013 and 2015, Trevathan had a combined 10 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 16 pass breakups. Freeman averaged 132 tackles in four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts with 12 sacks and 9 forced fumbles.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They're both athletic, both ... have good instincts in run and pass," coach John Fox said. "They play fast, and this game is about that. No two players are exactly alike, but they love to play the game and get excited about coming to practice, and that's contagious."

3. Interceptions from the secondary.

As a team, the Bears had just 8 interceptions last year, tied for second-worst in the NFL and the lowest in franchise history. Only 4 of those picks came from defensive backs. Harold Jones-Quartey had the only interception from the safety position, where he could wind up starting along with Adrian Amos.

Cornerback Tracy Porter led the Bears with 22 pass breakups last season and was rewarded with a $12 million three-year contract, but he had just 1 interception in 2015 and has just 11 picks in eight NFL seasons.

Kyle Fuller led the Bears with 2 interceptions last year and had 4 as a rookie in 2014.

Maybe some new blood will help. The Bears drafted three defensive backs this year.

Fourth-rounder Deiondre Hall, a lanky corner, also played safety at Northern Iowa, where he picked off 13 passes and returned 4 of them for touchdowns.

Sixth-round safety DeAndre Houston-Carson intercepted 7 passes in his final two seasons at William & Mary, where he also played cornerback.

4. Will the addition of Akiem Hicks be enough to improve a deficient run defense?

Last year's group was 26th in average gain allowed per run and tied for 22nd in rushing yardage allowed. The 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks was acquired in free agency to be a fixture and a run stuffer at left end.

Hicks' play suffered early in 2015, when he was miscast as a 4-3 end in the New Orleans Saints' defense. He has been much more effective as a 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 alignment, which is what he played in the final 13 games with the New England Patriots last season and where he'll play in the Bears' base defense.

His presence is welcomed by Bears linebackers who will have a less congested path to ball carriers because of Hicks' ability to occupy blockers. The two new inside 'backers should benefit most from Hicks' work up front, and the big guy believes he'll reap the rewards of the two veteran playmakers behind him.

"If you've got two great linebackers behind you," Hicks said, "you should have a pretty good day on the defensive line."

With Hicks flanking promising 2015 second-round nose tackle Eddie Goldman, the Bears' D-line should enjoy more good days than it did in 2015.

5. How much will first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd improve the pass rush?

After a slow start, the Bears finished a respectable 12th in sack percentage last season, as outside linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young keyed a second-half surge. Houston led the Bears with 8 sacks after getting just 1 in the first seven games as he rebounded from a torn ACL in 2014. Young was second on the team with 6 sacks after getting just 1 in the first nine games as he bounced back from a torn Achilles late in the 2014 season.

Floyd has the potential to become a better pass rusher than Houston and Young, especially with coordinator Vic Fangio putting him in situations that play to his strengths. But there are concerns that the lanky Floyd will have to get bigger and stronger before he realizes his potential as an NFL sack artist.

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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