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Column: The Chicago Bears need another edge rusher. Could UCLA’s Laiatu Latu be a draft target, injury history and all?

Eileen T. Meslar/Chicago Tribune/TNS

MOBILE, Ala. — In the last 25 years, the Chicago Bears have drafted two edge rushers who went on to have a double-digit-sack season for the team.

Mark Anderson, a fifth-round pick in 2006, had a career-high 12 during his rookie season. Rosevelt Colvin, a fourth-round pick in 1999, had 10 1/2 sacks in 2001 and 2002 before departing leaving as a free agent.

The only other edge rusher to reach at least 10 sacks in a season did it elsewhere — Leonard Floyd, selected ninth in 2016, had 10 1/2 sacks this season for the Buffalo Bills and the same number in 2020 for the Los Angeles Rams.

The Bears have fueled their pass rush largely with free agents or trade acquisitions, and general manager Ryan Poles filled a gaping need midseason when he traded for Montez Sweat and then secured the defensive end with a four-year, $98 million extension.

For coach Matt Eberflus’ defense to reach another level — and that’s the goal — the Bears need a pass-rushing threat opposite Sweat. A handful of veterans will be worth consideration in free agency, including Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings, but in a perfect world the team would be able to pair a rookie with Sweat, who will turn 28 in September.

It’s way too early to project how things will shake out, but if the Bears draft a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the draft, they could consider a wide receiver, offensive tackle or edge rusher at No. 9. If Poles trades down at No. 9, he still could fish in the same waters for those positions.

UCLA’s Laiatu Latu is the most accomplished pure edge rusher in the draft and projects as a first-round pick after totaling 23 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons. The Pac-12 defensive player of the year also won the Lombardi Award as the best defensive lineman in the nation, and he has looked the part this week at Senior Bowl practices with some silky smooth spin moves on the edge and high-level hand usage.

Latu measured 6-foot-5, 261 pounds, so he has good size, but his arms probably aren’t an ideal length at 32 1/2 inches. For comparison, Sweat was 6-6, 260 at the combine in 2019, and his arms measured 35 3/4 inches. Eberflus puts a big emphasis on length when he’s scouting defensive players.

But the production is there, and the biggest question for Latu beginning next month at the scouting combine will surround medical reports. Latu briefly retired from football after suffering a neck injury at the beginning his college career at Washington. Latu suffered a stinger in practice as the Huskies prepared for the 2020 season.

“Just took a weird hit and got a stinger going down my body that lasted 20 seconds, like a lot of other people feel,” he said.

Latu didn’t feel right afterward, and following an MRI, Washington doctors decided he would need to sit out the season. He eventually required surgery for a slipped disk in March 2021. The Huskies medical team essentially decided it wasn’t safe for him to continue playing and basically medically retired him.

Rehab was supposed to be a grueling nine-month process. But 2 1/2 months removed from surgery, Latu felt no complications. He was still at Washington and had retained his scholarship but wasn’t allowed to play football.

“You can call me stubborn, but I went into playing men’s rugby and really just testing my body, tackling grown men and stuff like that,” he said. “I earned a contract from the Seattle Seawolves to go and play with them for an extended part of time. They’d pay me and give me housing, stuff like that, turned that down. I wanted to chase my passion for football.”

Latu sought another opinion on his neck injury and met with Dr. Robert Watkins in Southern California. Latu was cleared to play football, entered the transfer portal and turned into a heck of a find for the Bruins.

Every team here has asked him about his journey and the medical process, and he can point out he had no injury issues the last two years at UCLA.

“Head, neck and heart, those are the three issues that get really tricky for the medical teams,” a high-ranking personnel man said after practice Tuesday at South Alabama’s Whitney Hancock Stadium. “It could be a deal where half the teams pass him and half fail him.”

Sweat had a heart issue when he came out of Mississippi State. He was reported to be diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which results in thickening of the heart walls. Some later said that diagnosis was incorrect, but the official I spoke to said his team removed Sweat from its draft board. Sweat is a clear example of a player with a medical-related issue who can go on to have a productive and durable career despite the questions of highly trained doctors.

On the field, Latu isn’t great defending the run and has had a few instances in practices in which he has struggled to set the edge.

“He’s not overly strong,” a college scouting director said. “He’s willing and it’s not a lack of effort in the run game. You might want him to add some weight if he’s a three-down player. But there’s so many sub packages, if you’re just drafting him to hunt the quarterback, you’re fine.”

In a draft class that isn’t stocked with elite edge rushers, Latu could have skipped the Senior Bowl and kept his focus strictly on preparing for on-field testing at the combine in Indianapolis.

“I was told I could never play football again,” Latu said. “To me, I can’t get enough of it, especially learning from the best of the best while being out here. Really just gaining knowledge and growing.”