Welcome to Chicago, Khalil Mack. Can you play against the Packers next Sunday?
“I feel like I’m ready,” the Bears’ prized outside linebacker said Sunday at Halas Hall. “But . . . we’ve got to get out there and get to it and my body will respond the way it’s going to respond, and then coaches are going to kind of ease me into it, and we’re going to figure it out.”
The Bears’ stunning acquisition of Mack in a trade with the Raiders on Saturday presented coach Matt Nagy with a challenge right off the bat, but it’s the kind of quandary he will gladly deal with and one of the best problems the Bears have had in years:
How to be patient and prudent and still find a way to incorporate a 27-year-old three-time Pro Bowl selection, two-time All-Pro and 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year into his defensive lineup on a week’s notice.
The temptation has to be great, with the Bears facing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday night at Lambeau Field. Leveling the field against Rodgers — who is 16-3 against the Bears in his career — is one of the biggest reasons you pounce on opportunities to get pass-rushing difference-makers such as Mack. You get a Christmas present, you want to open it on Christmas Day.
The excitement over the Mack acquisition is palpable throughout Halas Hall, but Nagy doesn’t want to do anything stupid. The likelihood of Mack playing against the Packers is “hopefully pretty good,” Nagy said. It all starts Monday at practice, where Mack will be in uniform and ready to go.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get him to a point where he can play,” Nagy said. “[We] know he’s been working out, training, and you see the guy, it’s not hard to tell he’s been doing that, [but] we’ve got to be smart. The last thing you want to do is just throw him out there and then all of a sudden he’s hurt, and now you lose him for some time. That’s what we don’t want to do.”
Nagy has plenty of experience dealing with those issues — keeping dinged or injured players out until they’re ready to return. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch missed most of training camp with a pulled hamstring. Rookie linebacker Roquan Smith has not practiced since developing tightness in his left hamstring a week after ending his 29-day holdout. The stakes are high for Lynch, higher for Smith and exponentially higher for Mack, who signed a six-year, $141 million contract, with $90 million guaranteed.
“It’s very similar to some of these other guys we’ve been dealing with,’’ Nagy said, ‘‘so we’ll be careful with it. We want to be aggressive with it but smart.”
Mack said he has been working out during his contract holdout with the Raiders, just like every holdout ever.
“I’ve been everywhere training,” he said. ‘‘I feel like people have been taking pictures of me at 24 Hour Fitness random times of the night. I can’t begin to tell you everything I’ve been doing, but I knew I wanted this to happen, and I wanted to be ready for the moment.”
Mack looks to be in great shape, but getting in football shape could take some time. Still, he’s a four-year veteran who has been here before. If all goes well, playing third-down passing situations in which his biggest responsibility is attacking Rodgers would seem like a workable introduction.
He knows Bears fans can’t wait to see it. He can’t wait, either.
“That’s very exciting,” Mack said of the enthusiasm for his arrival in Chicago. “What excites me more is learning the playbook, getting to know my teammates, being around the coaching staff and understanding the system. I love football. That’s what I’m all about. That excitement right there is everything for me. It’s got me shaking a little bit just thinking about it.”