BOURBONNAIS — Willie Young’s contract extension is good news for Young and his family but better news for the Bears. You barely need one hand to count the players in recent Bears history who have recovered from major surgeries to be as good as they were. And after Brian Urlacher and Rex Grossman, about all that’s left are sad stories: Marc Colombo, Jerry Azumah, Dusty Dvoracek, Mark Bradley, Nathan Vasher, Tommie Harris, Lance Louis, Henry Melton and Gabe Carimi among them.
Whether it’s luck of the draw or a different approach, new Bears general manager Ryan Pace was 2-for-2 in his first season. Lamarr Houston recovered from a torn ACL to lead the Bears with eight sacks last season. Young overcame a late-season torn Achilles in 2014 to get 6 1/2 sacks in 2015. And he was rewarded for his perseverance, production and ability to adjust to playing outside linebacker in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense with a two-year extension through the 2018 season — that the Bears gladly announced Saturday morning.
“It’s a credit to him,” Pace said as the Bears practiced at Olivet Nazarene University. “It feels good to reward somebody that’s worked as hard as he’s worked — overcoming the injury last year and the leader that he is out there, mentoring our younger players.
“I feel really good about it. I think it’s good for our locker room. It’s good for our team. I still think he’s going to get better in this scheme [with] the more reps he gets. He’s a well-rounded player. He works hard. He’s always in shape and he’s a good teammate.”
The new deal is a personal victory for the 30-year-old Young, a seventh-round draft pick by the Lions in 2010 who spent three years mostly as a fringe or part-time defensive end (25 tackles, three sacks from 2010-12) before establishing himself as a rotation regular. And his career in Chicago was severely in doubt after he suffered the injury — a career-ender for some — and appeared ill-fitted to play outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense.
But his perseverance, belief in himself and versatility made it work and his emotion was evidence when he stopped to compose himself while discussing that journey Saturday.
“It means a lot. It does,” Young said. “I was always counted out. There’s only a handful of people that actually believed in me — my teammates; definitely my d-line coach when I started out; a couple of other guys.
“Seventh-round picks don’t hang around for long. You expect to be a practice-squad guy and that’s it. I think Mr. Irrelevant [the last player selected in the seven-round draft] got more attention than I got when I came out that year.”
The 6-4, 258-pound Young also paused when asked if he had any doubt he would return after suffering the injury. “I’m a trooper,” he said. “And I’ve got two little boys who look up to me. I refuse to let ‘em down. Never one time did I have a negative thought about a blown Achilles, career-ending or what-not.
“My biggest concern was my opportunity to show the coaches I can play this game at a high level. I’ve always just sat back patiently waiting for that opportunity. Weathering the storm. Always continuously working on my technique. I was never really distracted by [the injury]. I just got a brand new Achilles out of the deal.”
The challenge now is for Young and Houston to continue the progress they made in the second half last season — Young had 5 1/2 of his 6/12 sacks, 11 of his 12 tackles-for-loss and his lone interception in the final eight games of the season; Houston had seven of his eight sacks in the final nine games. But even to get this far is progress for the Bears. Next up is Kevin White, recovering from a stress fracture in his shin that wiped out his rookie season.
Is it fate? Luck? Or are the Bears doing something right? Pace credited Young’s hard work and the Bears’ training staff for Young’s comeback. “They worked hard,” he said. “As you watch the tape and analyze everything there was no hitch or anything in his play. He was fully healthy and playing at a high level. I think he’ll play at an even higher level this season and we’re excited about that.”