How the Chicago Bears Can Best Utilize Pernell McPhee's Versatility

Matt Eurich@@MattEurichAnalyst IApril 12, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 11:  Pernell McPhee #90 of the Baltimore Ravens in action against the Philadelphia Eagles during their pre season game on August 11, 2011 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears made their first big splash of free agency on Wednesday when they announced the signing of outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.

According to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, the five-year deal is worth $40 million with nearly $16 million guaranteed. 

McPhee was drafted in the fifth round by Baltimore in 2011 and registered 92 tackles and 17 sacks in four seasons with the Ravens. He is just 26 years old and has experience playing outside linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle in a 3-4 defense.

Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen thinks McPhee's versatility will be an asset in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme.

McPhee only started six games in four years for Baltimore, but he became a pass-rushing force last season. Elvis DumervilMcPhee's teammate in Baltimore and one of the league's best pass-rushershad high praise for McPhee's ability as a pass-rusher.

“As a pure rusher, he’s probably one of the better ones I’ve seen,” said Dumervil, via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com. “He’s probably got a better finesse game than me. There’s a move that he does that I can’t even attempt to try to do."

According to Pro Football Focus, only Justin Houston graded out better than McPhee among all 3-4 outside linebackers:

McPhee finished last season with 27 tackles and 7.5 sacks, and, according to Pro Football Focus, he also registered 21 quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries in 540 snaps. 

He gives the Bears a Swiss army knife on defense, so how can they best utilize his versatility? 

 

Create Mismatches as a Pass-Rusher

McPhee's best asset is his ability to rush the quarterback from almost anywhere on the field.
McPhee's best asset is his ability to rush the quarterback from almost anywhere on the field.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Coming out of Mississippi State, McPhee was known as a relentless defensive end with exceptional strength, but he had a lack of speed for the position. 

His scouting report on NFL.com highlighted his deficiencies, saying:

Doesn't possess great get off or speed to consistently get the edge. Doesn't show a versatile arsenal of pass rushing moves. Holds up well at the point, but needs to get better with his hands and shed quicker. Awareness needs to improve some. Not an overly fluid or smooth athlete.

Since arriving in the league in 2011, McPhee has been able to improve in almost every one of those areas. 

While he still lacks top-end speed, the Ravens were able to create mismatches for him by lining him up on the inside, which allowed him to better utilize both his strength and explosiveness.

In Week 5 last season versus the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens created confusion along the line of scrimmage by playing just one down lineman and having McPhee rush the A-gap between the center and the right guard.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

After slowly approaching the line of scrimmage before the snap, McPhee sharply turned his hips and worked his way up the field.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

He used a swim move to get past the guard before using his speed to get after quarterback Andrew Luck and take him down him for a sack.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Prior to that Week 5 matchup, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano knew slowing down McPhee was going to be a tough task.

"When they bring in guys like Pernell that is fresh and is a buzz sawhe’s like a rolling ball of butcher knives,” Pagano said, via Mink. “We’re fully going to make sure our guys are aware of where he’s at at all times when he’s on the football field.”

The play above is a perfect example of the freedom Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees gave McPhee as a pass-rusher last season.

“Coach gives us the opportunity to freelance; he gave it to us this year,” McPhee said last season, via Mink. "It’s awesome. It’s like playing backyard football right now."

While he has had success in the past when given the ability to freelance in the middle of the field, he can also apply pressure from the outside.

In Week 17 versus the Cleveland Browns last season, McPhee lined up as an outside linebacker in a two-point stance.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Browns were showing an option look on the play, and McPhee held his ground and forced quarterback Connor Shaw to keep the football.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

He was initially blocked by tight end Jordan Cameron, but he was able to use his swim move to get past him. Shaw attempted to step up in the pocket, but McPhee worked through traffic to take him down for a sack.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

His ability to be moved around as a pass-rusher is one of the reasons why general manager Ryan Pace wanted to sign McPhee.

"This is a player we targeted right from the onset," Pace said on Wednesday, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com. "He is a highly productive, disruptive and versatile defender. This guy not only brings the top physical talent but also the right mentality and makeup to improve our football team." 

Head coach John Fox likened McPhee's playing style to a former pupil of his from when he was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, saying, via Mayer: 

He's able to use his hands very well. He's not what I would define as a speed rusher, but an outstanding rusher. Comparisons, I don't like doing those very often, but kind of [like] Mike Strahan does it with really good technique, really good hands and good leverage. [McPhee] plays with good lean and he pushes the pocket very, very well.

No one is expecting McPhee to turn into a Hall of Fame defensive end like Strahan, but if anyone can get the most out of him, it will be Fox and Fangio.

 

Use His Strength to Set the Edge Versus the Run

Known mostly as a pass-rusher, McPhee also has the ability to be a force versus the run.
Known mostly as a pass-rusher, McPhee also has the ability to be a force versus the run.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Even though McPhee's greatest asset is his ability to rush the passer, he has proven in the past he can contribute against the run.

According to Pro Football Focus, he finished with a plus-3.2 grade versus the run last season, 17th best among 3-4 outside linebackers. He only played 116 snaps versus the run in 2014, but he finished third in run-stop percentage among 3-4 outside linebackers with 10.3 percent. 

Even though Pace likes what McPhee can bring as pass-rusher, he also likes what he can add versus the run.

"I like the violence that he plays with. He's got length, gets off blocks," Pace said, via Mayer. "I think he's a well-rounded player, too. He's a productive pass rusher but also a steady, consistent run defender."

An example of his ability to get off blocks versus the run came in Week 4 versus the Cleveland Browns last season. At the start of the play, McPhee lined up as an outside linebacker just to the outside of the right tackle.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Browns then attempted to run a stretch play with running back Terrance West to the right side with Cameron blocking McPhee.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

A hole formed between Cameron and the right tackle, but before West could work his way up field, McPhee collapsed back to the inside and was able to bring West down after a minimal gain.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

When asked at his introductory press conference on Wednesday to give a scouting report on himself, McPhee's response was pretty simple.

“I’m violent, and that’s all you need, to be violent,” he said with a laugh, via ESPN Chicago's Michael C. Wright"No, just a violent guy [who tries] to forget about the [last] play no matter if it's good or bad, and play with that motor and with that energy." 

If the Bears can utilize McPhee's versatility as pass-rusher by moving him around to various spots on the field, and if they can rely on him to set the edge versus the run, they may have found the new face of their defense for years to come. 

 

Statistical information courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.

Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

Follow @MattEurich

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