With the No. 9 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced a decision: draft the player they wanted in cornerback Vernon Hargreaves or swing a trade with the Chicago Bears. Everyone in the draft world knew the New York Giants, with pick No. 10 overall, wanted Georgia pass-rusher Leonard Floyd.
News had been leaking from their draft room for weeks that Floyd was the target in Round 1. The Bears knew it too, so they jumped the Giants, moving up from No. 11 overall to get their guy. The Giants were left with Eli Apple atop the board—a move a source in the front office has since told me was an "oh s--t" pick by then-general manager Jerry Reese after losing out on his guy.
The Bears got their guy, and now in his third year, the hope is that Floyd is ready to become the stud pass-rusher the front office hoped he could be when they made the trade. The optimism coming out of training camp has been high.
Floyd was always a work in progress, and he was drafted more on potential than immediate production. Said one scout who covers the SEC for an NFC team: "You knew he needed a year or two to kind of learn, grow and figure things out. This wasn't a plug-and-play dude like [Joey] Bosa."
Coming out of Georgia, Floyd needed to get stronger, but he also needed to learn secondary pass-rushing moves. From my scouting report on him before the 2016 draft: "Floyd's profile is more about what he can be than what he was at Georgia. He never had more than 6.5 sacks in any season—and he achieved that total his freshman year. Limited strength will need addressed in Floyd's rookie season."
Those concerns carried over to the NFL, but Floyd has shown flashes that make coaches think he's turning the corner.
In his first two seasons of learning and growing, Floyd has put together solid stats when healthy, posting seven sacks in 12 games as a rookie and 4.5 in his sophomore season while appearing in 10 games. The problem, as one Bears source put it, is that, "Neither of those numbers is 16. He's been kind of beat up, but I think some of that is from trying to get bigger. We've seen this summer that it's really clicking for him."
Floyd is coming off of MCL and PCL surgery from the injury that limited him to 10 games in 2017 but says he's feeling fine. "I've got 100 percent trust in my leg," Floyd told Chicago Tribune reporter Rich Campbell following a session in late July. "I pretty much don't even think about it when I play."
If Floyd's leg is truly healed and things really are clicking for him, watch out. It's rare to find an NFL pass-rusher with his agility on a 6'4", 250-pound frame. His ability to set up offensive tackles with speed and length are what made him a top-10 pick just two seasons ago. The hope in Chicago is that a full 16-game season from Floyd would turn out double-digit sacks.
"Look at what he did as a rookie when he had very limited tools," a coach on the Bears staff said. "He's bigger now, stronger, smarter. As long as he stays healthy, I'll bet you a case of beer he's a 12-sack player."
The Chicago defense could certainly use that production from Floyd. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks has emerged as a top-tier player at his position, and rookie middle linebacker Roquan Smith is still a holdout as of this writing. That leaves room for Floyd to be a star if he's able to stay on the field consistently.
In a division with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford, the Bears need a pass rush that can impact the game plan but also help a young secondary cover against the elite quarterbacks they see six times a year.
Floyd has the tools, the confidence and hopefully the health to become the NFL's next great pass-rusher. During his time with the San Francisco 49ers, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had a three-headed monster with Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis that offenses couldn't figure out. With Akiem Hicks in the Justin Smith role, Roquan Smith drafted to be the Patrick Willis and Leonard Floyd's potential to make the impact Aldon Smith did, the Bears defense could be downright scary in 2018.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.