GREEN BAY — A blockbuster deal brought a new wrinkle to the NFL’s oldest rivalry.
The Chicago Bears visit Lambeau Field tonight, just in time for star pass-rusher Khalil Mack to potentially make his debut in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers.
A premier player joins what figures to be an already tough defense. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks can’t hide his glee.
“When we got him, I was just so excited just to have such a prolific pass-rusher next to me. It’s going to be phenomenal,” Hicks said.
The Packers looked into trading for Mack. Now they have to face him.
“Yeah, I was lying in bed scrolling through Twitter like, ‘Dang, man. Gotta see him twice a year now,” Packers receiver Randall Cobb said.
Hicks led the Bears last year with a career-high 8½ sacks. Now, the Bears are adding a player with 40½ sacks, and nine forced fumbles in his four seasons. Mack also leads all players with 185½ quarterback pressures and ranks second with 68 tackles for loss since entering the league, according to SportRadar.
It’s not hard for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to envision more opportunities for 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd on the opposite edge with opponents keying on Mack. He sees the same for the inside linebackers and the defensive backs, with quarterbacks under more pressure.
“It’s a chain reaction, a domino effect and hopefully, that’s what we’ll see,” Fangio said.
The question is how soon.
Mack sat out the entire offseason and preseason with Oakland trying to get a long-term extension rather than play under the final year of his rookie contract. He wound up getting a six-year, $141 million extension that guarantees him $90 million and makes him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
Although Matt Nagy has yet to coach a game for the Bears, he is proving as adept as a veteran coach at keeping trade secrets. After a week of avoiding certainties, Nagy all but confirmed Mack would play against Green Bay. And even then, he avoided clarity.
“Yeah, there’s a good shot of playing,” Nagy said Friday. “We just don’t know how much.”
Asked if Mack could play the entire game rushing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the edge, Nagy said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
The only comment Mack made on his availability came Wednesday when he said: “You’ll see on Sunday. Under the lights.”
It’s not a common situation, but Fangio said the Rams’ Aaron Donald did something similar last year after a holdout. He played and produced immediately.
“Aaron Donald was in that same predicament last year, signing right before his first game that he played with a new defense,” Fangio said. “He played 48 plays, some other guys have played in the 20s. I think everybody’s individual but it’s something we’re going to have to manage and keep an eye on.”
Teammates have been impressed with what they’ve seen on the practice field
“He’s a person that could change the whole dynamic, you know?” nose tackle Eddie Goldman said. “A lot of attention’s going to be on him and that’ll open up a lot of opportunities for me and other guys on the D-line too.”
Goldman helped to cement the future of the defense Friday by signing a four-year contract extension through through the 2022 season worth a reported $42 million. He would have been a free agent after this season. With the potential of Mack causing havoc, Goldman sees a chance for the Bears to remain viable defensively long term.
“I think the oldest guy is like 28, 29, so a lot of guys could be here for a long time, and hopefully build a legacy that we hope to remember,” Goldman said.
The primary responsibility for blocking Mack will fall to Packers veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who will be playing his first game since tearing his right ACL in November.
He might get some help at times from the Packers’ deep tight end group, reinforced during the offseason with the additions of free agent Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis to join veteran Lance Kendricks. They’ll be tasked to give enough time to the ultimate equalizer: Rodgers.
Graham, who signed as a free agent from Seattle, has already shown chemistry with Rodgers. The 6-foot-7 tight end could offer an enticing target especially in the red zone. Defenses may have to decide whether to pay more attention to Graham over the middle or receiver Davante Adams on the outside.
“He can do it all over the field,” Rodgers said of Graham. “He’s got a wide, wide catch radius and there are a lot of things he can do.”
The Bears are counting on second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky to make big gains in first-year coach Nagy’s offense. They also gave him some new options, including former Jacksonville Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson. He returns to the field after tearing his left ACL in his left knee during last year’s opener with Jaguars. Signed by the Bears in March, Robinson did not catch pass in the preseason.
Trubisky threw for 2,193 yards in 12 games last season after Chicago traded up a spot to draft him with the No. 2 overall pick. But he also had as many interceptions as touchdown passes while compiling a 77.5 rating that was about the same as Mike Glennon’s (76.9).