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Home improvement: Arrow pointing up for Vic Fangio, Bears’ defense

When Vic Fangio stepped up to the lectern following practice Wednesday at Halas Hall, the first question for the Bears’ defensive coordinator was no surprise: How is rookie linebacker Roquan Smith doing?

“Right now he’s just trying to learn everything and he’s doing well at that, working hard at it,” Fangio said. “We’ll see. He’s got to earn his stripes. He had a good enough college career on and off the field to get drafted [eighth overall], and now he’s got to prove his worth. But he’s doing well.”

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But when Fangio was asked about another rookie, outside linebacker Kyle Fitts, the sixth-round draft pick from Utah, he stopped to remind us that the offseason is not all about upgrades and draft picks.

Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd sacks Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the Bears' 17-3 victory last season at Soldier Field. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

“I know you guys are all interested in the rookies and understandably so,” Fangio said, “but I think some of the veterans have gotten better through this time, too. Guys like [Danny] Trevathan. You may ask why. Well, last year he didn’t do any of this stuff [because he was coming off knee surgery]. He didn’t do any OTAs [organized team activities], hardly any training camp and didn’t play in any preseason games.

“To me, that set him back last year and he was injured the year before. This is the first time he’s had a nice chunk of work and I see improvement with him. I see improvement with [third-year safety Deon] Bush. A couple of other DBs, too. There’s guys that still have a long ways to go and there’s more we can get out of these guys.”

That’s one big reason why Fangio decided to return to the Bears after John Fox was fired following last season. Everywhere he turns, Fangio sees not only room for growth, but players making it.

While first-year head coach Matt Nagy is getting a lot of league-wide praise for the impact he’s already had as a new face at Halas Hall, it’s Fangio who stands to be the biggest winner this season. With Nagy replacing Fox, he’s the most accomplished coach in the building. With Nagy consumed with the installation of the offense, the defense is Fangio’s show.

Fangio has 13 players returning from a ninth-ranked scoring defense who started at least three games last season — plus the eighth overall pick in the draft in Smith, who is expected to be a Week 1 starter. And while the Bears are a virtual no-name defense — they were the only defense in the upper half of the NFL last year without a Pro Bowl player — they have players ready for takeoff, if they can stay healthy.

And even on the health front there was good news this week with outside linebacker Leonard Floyd’s return to practice, albeit on a limited basis, after missing most of the offseason program while recovering from a sprained knee that cost him the final six games of last season.

“[I] expect him to be full-speed and ready to go at training camp,” Fangio said.

Fangio said Floyd’s development has been hampered by the inactivity. “It has. There’s no way around it,” Fangio said. “Everybody needs as many reps in practice as they can get. He’s really anxious to do it. He’s been begging the trainers and medical people to let him out there a little earlier. But I think he’ll overcome it.”

Floyd is one of a few Bears defenders with an injury history and Pro Bowl potential. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a year removed from an ankle injury that short-circuited his second season, is prime on that list.

But the time is now.

“As he stacks up with nose tackles, he’s up there,” Fangio said “He’s a good, solid player. And if he’s going to be considered more than a good, solid player, this would be the year to show it.”