Imagine what the Bears' pass rush would look like this year without Willie Young.
Of the Bears' 13 sacks through six games, Young has 6, including 5 in the past two games.
The late-blooming 31-year-old was originally the Lions' 2010 seventh-round draft pick (213th overall) out of North Carolina State. When he isn't terrorizing quarterbacks, Young is an enthusiastic fisherman, and he's had plenty of opportunities lately to demonstrate his sack celebrations, which mimic various casting techniques.
After a personal-best three sacks in Week 5, Young had two more Sunday in front of the home fans and family at Soldier Field, which gave him a chance to go “fishing.”
“The first one, I was fly fishing,” he said. “I was going for distance on the second one. It was a very strong one, a very strong cast. I had the family up in the stands, so I sent the hook right at them.”
Young forced a Blake Bortles fumble on his second sack, and teammate Akiem Hicks recovered for the Bears at the Jaguars' 28-yard line, but they settled for a 32-yard field goal.
Young has been making plays for three years as a Bear, first as a defensive end in a 4-3 and, since last year, as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Bears' decision to gamble on Young in free agency after the 2013 season has paid huge dividends. Buying low and wagering on potential, Young was signed to a three-year $9 million deal. In four years with the Lions, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Young had totaled just six sacks.
In his first season with the Bears, he led the team with 10½ sacks despite missing the season finale with a ruptured Achilles tendon. He was also second among Bears linemen with 55 tackles, frequently using his speed and quickness to chase down plays run away from him.
He began slowly last season but had 5½ of his 6½ sacks in the final seven games, overcoming not only the Achilles injury, but a position shift from defensive end in a 4-3 to outside linebacker in Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme.
That prompted the Bears to give him a two-year extension at the start of training camp worth $11 million, including $9 million guaranteed, and it included a reworking of his 2016 compensation.
“We did this because of everything he brings to the table,” general manager Ryan Pace said of Young. “He’s a productive player, he’s a good player and, most importantly, he’s a good teammate.”
That much was obvious when Young was asked about his three sacks in Week 5.
“My performance came down to a great push up the middle and just guys getting aggressive,” he said. “Guys being dominant and winning their one-on-ones. From the start of that game, controlling the run game – that’s where it started.
“None of my production was possible without the guys next to me. I don’t say that to be a company guy. I say that because those guys were playing their asses off.”
The Bears' decision in late July to reward Young seemed like a good idea back then. And, despite the team's horrible start, it seems like a better idea now.
“It feels good to reward somebody that’s worked as hard as he’s worked and overcome the injury last year, and is the leader that he is,” Pace said in the summer. “He's out there mentoring our younger players. It’s good for our locker room; it’s good for our team.”
It was the first contract extension of Pace's regime, and he can only hope they all pay off as well.