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03/26/16Author: Adam L. Jahns — Chicago Sun Times

Lamarr Houston, Willie Young won over new Bears brass

Lamarr Houston, Willie Young won over new Bears brass

General manager Ryan Pace’s major overhaul of the Bears’ roster has resulted in the departures of some of former GM Phil Emery’s biggest signees.

Tight end Martellus Bennett’s personality didn’t fit. Defensive end Jared Allen didn’t belong in a 3-4 defense. And offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod wasn’t going to start.

But outside linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are different. It didn’t always look promising for them, but — for the time being, anyway — they seem to have a place in what Pace and coach John Fox are building.

Emery signed Houston to a five-year, $35 million contract ($15 million guaranteed) in 2014 to replace Julius Peppers at defensive end, but he was a major disappointment that season. His lowest moment was tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while celebrating his only sack of the season during a blowout loss to Patriots.

Last season was different, though. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s
3-4 defense was a better fit for Houston. Being upright felt more natural and enabled him to play lighter and attack opposing tackles differently. He finished with a team-leading eight sacks, which also were a career high.

‘‘We feel good about Lamarr,’’ Pace said during the NFL owners’ meetings in Boca Raton, Florida. ‘‘He came on strong. Luckily, we’re in a healthy cap situation, so we can [keep him on the roster].

‘‘[Pass rushers] are hard to find. The playoffs were an example of [the importance of] having a strong pass rush, and the more we have of those guys, the better. So we’re comfortable with where he’s at.’’

The same is true for Young, whom Emery signed to a three-year, $9 million contract not long after Houston.

Young also rebounded from a serious injury — a torn left Achilles tendon — and played well after initially struggling in his transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. After having 10 sacks in 2014, he had 6½ last season.

‘‘I’ve enjoyed coaching him my one year because he’s not afraid to work and he does it enthusiastically,’’ Fox said. ‘‘So I like Willie, and I’ve seen him improve.’’

In the Bears’ last nine games of 2015, Houston and Young combined for 12½ sacks. They formed a strong tandem opposite Pernell McPhee. They also played well in McPhee’s place while he struggled with a knee injury.

Overall, their production made outside linebacker less of a priority than other positions in free agency. Instead, the Bears moved quickly to upgrade at inside linebacker, signing Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.

Does Houston’s and Young’s success last season mean the Bears won’t look at edge rushers in the draft? Definitely not, even though it’s not regarded as a strong group in the draft.

The Bears want to get faster, and speed isn’t considered one of McPhee’s, Houston’s or Young’s primary attributes.

But Houston and Young produce. The Bears’ decision-makers saw that firsthand last season.

Asked whether Houston and Young have what he looks for in pass rushers, Fox’s first words of a rambling response might have said it all.

‘‘Obviously, I like those guys,’’ he said.

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