The Bears were desperate for speed in the offseason, but the “football gene” was a close second when it came to giving Vic Fangio what he needs to invigorate the Bears’ defense.
Though Fangio has a reputation for putting players in position to succeed, the players who have a knack for getting in the right position in the first place seem to flourish the most. Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, the ultimate football-gene guy, was an undersized linebacker and third-round draft pick who became a revelation for the 49ers in Fangio’s defense in 2014 before suddenly retiring after an impressive rookie season.
After spending much of last year trying to re-program holdovers from the Phil Emery/Marc Trestman era — training Shea McClellin at his third position in four NFL seasons; trying to mold Christian Jones’ athleticism into a football player and challenges like that, the Bears have loaded up on players they feel have an innate sense for the game. And measurable talent.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, the Bears’ first-round draft pick from Georgia, could be the next Demarcus Ware or the next John Thierry. “He’s very athletic. He’s long. He can run,” Fangio said of Floyd on Saturday after the Bears’ rookie mini-camp practice at Halas Hall. But while it looks like the Bears drafted the best athlete available, Fangio thinks they also got a good football player. “He’s got good instincts … which we’ll see if that translates here.”
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, signed as a free agent, give the Bears the speed upgrade they were looking for, but the football gene as well. “He’s got a good nose for the game,” Fangio said. Cornerback Deiondre Hall, the fourth-round pick form Northern Iowa has “a good knack for the game … good instincts.”
And linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, another fourth-round draft pick, might not have the off-the-charts football-quotient of Borland, but is bigger and faster and similarly instinctive. “The No. 1 trait when you’re looking for in a linebacker is instincts. You can’t coach that,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said after the draft. “He just reacts so quickly and he attacks downhill. I think instincts transfer to whatever level you’re playing at.”
Fangio downplayed the comparison when asked if Kwiatkoski was similar to Borland, but didn’t dismiss it out of hand, either. “A little bit — that’s what I’ll say right now,” Fangio said. “We’ll see.”
But whether or not Kwiatkoski becomes a starter or contributor at linebacker or core special-teamer, there is little doubt that Fangio has a better hand to play this year than last, when the Bears were 14th in total defense, 17th in scoring defense and 29th in takeaways.
“We have some better pieces to work with for sure,” he said.
Floyd is the highlight of the upgrade. The Bears traded up from 11th to ninth in the first round to make sure they got him.
“We wanted speed,” Fangio said. “Our team speed up front last year was below average. To add somebody with some speed as part of his toolbox is something we were intrigued by.”
The Bears are doubling down on a key criticism of the Floyd pick — that at his listed weight of 244 pounds, he’s too light to be an effective pass rusher. But Fangio said Floyd will lose weight instead of add it. “He’s going to weigh somewhere between 230 and 235,” Fangio said. “We knew that before we drafted him, so it’s not an issue.”
But the strength of the Bears’ defense under Fangio will be up the middle, especially at linebacker, where instinct, Fangio said, is vital.
“That’s a critical position,” he said. “As fast as those guys learn how to quarterback the defense [and] feel comfortable in what we’re doing and we feel comfortable with them will determine how fast and how well we improve.”