Leonard Floyd started the season with a club on his broken right hand.
He had zero sacks in his first eight games.
“I kept having to hold you guys off when you were wondering where he was the first few weeks,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Thursday. “I told you he would be better when he got full use of his hand. And he has.”
Floyd is playing the best football of his career; he had a season-high two sacks against the Packers last Sunday and has three sacks in as many games.
“There’s no replacement for playing, OK?” Fangio said. “There’s no replacement for practicing and then ultimately playing. And he’s been doing that. He’s playing better and better every week.”
The same can be said for another first-round pick on Floyd’s side of the ball. Rookie inside linebacker Roquan Smith’s preseason was wiped away by a contract standoff and then, in only his third practice, a hamstring injury that kept him out until the opener.
He has been healthy and productive ever since, leading the Bears with 107 tackles.
Both Smith and Floyd were named Pro Bowl alternates earlier this week, a testament to the growth they’ve shown since the season began.
For all the plaudits given the Bears for assembling a dominant defense — for trading for outside linebacker Khalil Mack, re-signing cornerback Kyle Fuller and keeping its defensive staff intact — the team wouldn’t be where it is without the in-season development of its top picks.
That didn’t happen as frequently in recent years, when the Bears were hit by a rash of injuries. The Bears have picked four defensive players in the first round since 2005. Shea McClellin was generally healthy but switched positions three times. Fuller missed the 2016 season after a seemingly routine preseason knee procedure. Injuries kept Floyd out of 10 of the Bears’ 32 games during his first two seasons.
Time is the best teacher.
“There’s no substitute for practice, no substitute for playing,” Fangio said. “[Smith] is just a little bit more dialed in on more details than he was then.
“And he’s still not where he’s going to end up being, even two weeks from now. A week from now. This game, this Sunday. Obviously next year and further on in his career.”
Smith is seeing subtleties he missed earlier this season. He’s better prepared for the 49ers, who pride themselves on play-action passes, than he would have been even a month ago.
“I would definitely credit some of that to the game slowing down,” Smith said. “But mistakes, you just try not to make the same mistake twice, and learn from mistakes, and learn from others’ mistakes.”
Since being moved into the starting lineup in Week 2, Smith has played 88.3 percent of the defensive snaps.
“I’m obviously more comfortable today.” Smith said. “It’s more going out there and getting the experience and doing what you gotta do each and every week.”
Floyd didn’t have the luxury of late-season growth in any of his first two seasons. He suffered two concussions within five weeks during his rookie season. The second one, which happened in Week 16, left him feeling unwell for two full months. Last year, Floyd was put on injured reserve after hurting the medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee in the Bears’ 13th game.
This year, Floyd has played 703 snaps, blowing past his previous single-season high of 582.
That experience is starting to show — with sacks and pass-rush production.
“Sometimes the numbers things can get out of whack just because you don’t have the sacks,” coach Matt Nagy said. “But it’s starting to turn up now. You’re starting to see more numbers from him.
“But, to me, he’s still flying around, doing everything. He’s practicing hard. And, obviously, I don’t think he’s pressing anymore. . . . Now he’s just playing ball, and that’s what we need.”