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Draft analysis: Bears love Khalil Mack, must develop depth behind him

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack warms up before the 49ers game. | D. Ross Cameron/AP photo

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack warms up before the 49ers game. | D. Ross Cameron/AP photo

Part 8 of an 11-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

The previous time the Bears handed out the largest contract in franchise history — to quarterback Jay Cutler — it didn’t take long for some to have buyer’s remorse.

Not so with Khalil Mack.

On Sept. 1, the Bears gave up a lot for the privilege of making Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history: two first-round picks — including this year’s — plus a third-rounder in 2020 and a sixth-rounder later this month. They got back a second-round pick and a conditional fifth-rounder next season and handed Mack a six-year, $141 million contract.

Seven-plus months later, it’s clear they’d do it again.

“He transformed the team on both sides of the ball,” chairman George McCaskey said last month. “I thought [general manager] Ryan [Pace] said it very well: When your best players are your hardest workers, that’s a good thing.

“I think having the defense really helped [quarterback] Mitchell [Trubisky]’s development. It didn’t have to be all on him.”

Mack earned his fourth Pro Bowl berth despite having no training-camp preparation. His 12½ sacks — in only 14 games — were the most in a season for any Bear not named Richard Dent. His work ethic is beyond reproach — Mack made it a point to train during the Patriots-Rams Super Bowl, a reminder of the Bears’ ultimate goal.

“He’s hungry,” coach Matt Nagy said.

The constant attention given Mack on the field was good for Leonard Floyd — eventually. A hand injury contributed to the 2016 first-round pick’s slow start to the season. Through the Bears’ first eight regular-season games, Floyd had only two quarterback hits and no sacks. In the last eight, though, Floyd had 10 hits and four sacks.

Floyd’s flourish was enough for Pace to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, which cements him and Mack as the Bears’ starting edge rushers for the next two seasons.

As he did last year, Aaron Lynch will back up both. The Bears re-signed the veteran this month to a one-year deal with a $1 million base salary and $1.4 million salary-cap hit.

After cutting Sam Acho last month, the Bears were left without a proven player at their fourth outside-linebacker spot when they began their offseason program Monday.

The team could draft one later this month to compete with Isaiah Irving, Josh Woods and last year’s sixth-round pick, Kylie Fitts. Irving — who, along with defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris, signed his exclusive-rights tender Monday — had one sack in 116 snaps last year. Fitts was blanked in 58 snaps. Woods was on the practice squad.

When new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano arrived in January, he stressed the importance of developing those young players.

“Pagano will say, ‘It’s on us to grow these young outside linebackers,’ ” Pace said last month. “We take ownership of that. As an evaluator, you love hearing coaches talk that way in growing your younger players, so I think it’s more of a philosophical belief that that’s going to continue to happen.”

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. The Bears have Khalil Mack under contract for another six years, Leonard Floyd for another two and Aaron Lynch for 2019. Still, you can never have enough pass rushers. General manager Ryan Pace has never shied away from investing in two areas: quarterback and those who sack the quarterback.

On the roster: Mack, Floyd, Lynch, Kylie Fitts, Isaiah Irving and Josh Woods.

The five best draft prospects: Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Florida State’s Brian Burns and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell.

Keep an eye on: Where Sweat lands. Bosa and Allen could go in the draft’s top three, but Sweat’s projection is more complicated. Tests at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis reportedly showed a pre-existing heart condition. First-round teams that want to invest in the Mississippi State pass rusher need to be comfortable with his medical evaluations.

Close to home: Sutton Smith had 29 sacks over the last two years at Northern Illinois. Among all FBS players, he ranked third in sacks per game in 2017 and fourth in 2018. He was named a first-team All-American and the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year after both seasons. The problem for Smith, at least at the next level: He measured only 6 feet tall at the combine. Unless a team gets creative, the converted running back looks like a special-teams body — or even a candidate for a position switch.

READ MORE BEARS DRAFT ANALYSIS
Kickers
Quarterbacks
Defensive linemen
Tight ends
Inside linebackers
Running backs
Wide receivers