Can linebacker Floyd become a building block for Bears?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Linebacker Leonard Floyd signs autographs for fans during a Chicago Bears training camp sesson last week in Bourbonnais.

    Linebacker Leonard Floyd signs autographs for fans during a Chicago Bears training camp sesson last week in Bourbonnais. Associated Press/file

  • Chicago Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd has found a valuable mentor in veteran linebacker Willie Young.

    Chicago Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd has found a valuable mentor in veteran linebacker Willie Young. John Starks | Staff Photographer/file

 
 
Updated 8/3/2017 4:49 PM

BOURBONNAIS -- If he stays healthy, Leonard Floyd can become an impact player and pass rusher the Bears' defense can build around for years.

But, as even Floyd knows, that's a big "if."

 

"That's the thing," he said, "I have to make sure I'm healthy to play. As long as I play, I can produce. That's what it comes down to."

The lanky athlete, the ninth-overall draft pick in 2016, was dogged by a variety of injuries as a rookie. But in only 12 games, he recorded 7 sacks, just one-half behind team leader Willie Young. Floyd also tied for third with 12 quarterback pressures.

At Green Bay, Floyd sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, forced him to fumble and then recovered the ball in the endzone for a touchdown. He also sacked the 49ers' Blaine Gabbert in the endzone for a safety against San Francisco.

On a defense desperate for big plays, Floyd was a welcomed sight.

But just as he appeared to be peaking, piling up 4 ½ sacks in three midseason games, Floyd suffered two concussions in a six-week span. Both were mostly his own fault for leading with his head when he tackled rather than seeing his target, with his head up.

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He felt the aftereffects of the second concussion for nearly two months. As a result proper tackling form has been an off-season priority.

"It's second nature now," Floyd said. "I've been working hard on it, watching myself on film, really studying the way I tackle. We get on the sleds and rep it over and over. You have to rep it in your head, too."

Floyd also missed games and practices last season with calf, hamstring, shoulder and heat-related ailments.

So the 24-year-old devoted his off-season to getting bigger, stronger and being in better shape than he was as a rookie. The Bears now list him at 6-foot-4 and 251 pounds, 11 more pounds than in 2016.

"There has been a focus on adding muscle to his frame and improving tackling techniques," Bears general manager Ryan Pace said. "All of those things are occurring as he matures as a player."

By all accounts, Floyd had a productive off-season, which has carried over to training camp.

"You see his speed, his quickness off the edge, and you see his pass-rush repertoire developing, his ability to quickly counter (pass blockers)," Pace said. "He has a lot more in his toolbox, as far as his pass-rush moves, which is going to be exciting to see."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Older teammates are also eager to see what Floyd can accomplish in a full season.

"He's grown a lot," eighth-year veteran linebacker Lamarr Houston said. "He's a better technician, he understands the game more, and he still has the same passion, so I'm excited to see what he does this year."

With venerable defensive coordinator Vic Fangio working more closely with the outside linebackers and position coach Brandon Staley, Floyd is adding a more nuanced understanding of the technical aspects of the game to his physical skills. He's more of a student of the game than in the past, when he could win with sheer athleticism.

But, even though he has great first-step quickness and is what coaches and scouts call "country strong," Floyd will struggle if he is caught in the clutches of NFL linemen who outweigh him by 50-80 pounds.

"I've been working on my hand speed," he said. "Sometimes (last year), I would let the tackles get their hands on me."

With a team-best 24 sacks over his three years with the Bears, Young is another one of Floyd's mentors.

"He's becoming more effective and efficient with his get-off," Young said. "He's more effective with his hand placement, which allows him to be in a very powerful position at the point of contact. It's something that we talk about: 'Are you winning the first two seconds of every play?' "

Young has also emphasized to Floyd the importance of protecting himself with sound tackling form.

"Always see what you hit," Young said. "If you can't see what you're hitting, you've got a problem. You're looking disaster right in the eyes.

"He's a very aggressive player. It's like he's trying to bury the ball carrier. (But) when your technique is superb, you can still bury the ball carrier while having your eyes up."

A heads-up and healthy Floyd would give the Bears defense a solid foundation for the future.

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

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