The Bears’ defense not only retained its entire coaching staff from 2017, but it also has, for now, only one new player in a significant role (outside linebacker Aaron Lynch). And there’s a benefit to that, as Akiem Hicks explained on Tuesday.
“I like to see the same faces and have that camaraderie already built up with the guys and you just have to bring that together and do it even better,” Hicks said. “But it’s inevitable, there’s going to be change. Guys are going to come in and they have to assimilate and make our defense better.”
The “inevitable” thing Hicks referred to is the Bears adding players to Vic Fangio’s defense through the draft. The Bears invested in their defense this offseason, but mostly in keeping together their cornerback tandem of Kyle Fuller (four years, $56 million) and Prince Amukamara (three years, $27 million). And while this defense can claim itself as a “top 10” group last year, that’s by two measures: scoring defense (20 points/game, ninth) and total defense (319 yards/game, 10th). More advanced metrics, like Football Outsiders’ DVOA, ranked the Bears somewhere in the middle of the NFL defensively.
Whatever defensive metric is used to evaluate the 2017 Bears, though, this point still stands: If the Bears had a truly great defense, they would’ve won more than five games. This group needs to unearth more playmakers — Hicks tabbed Leonard Floyd as someone ready to break out — and the best chance of finding one at this stage is through the draft.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Bears will use the No. 8 pick on a defensive player — if Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is still on the board, he could be the guy — but it does mean Ryan Pace will have to target defensive players with plenty of his selections next week. Adding at least one more edge rusher looks like a red-line need, while the Bears could view someone like Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds as an upgrade at inside linebacker (Edmunds, too, could be flipped to play outside linebacker). Or maybe versatile Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is the guy with at No. 8.
Someone like LSU edge rusher Arden Key could perhaps be a Day 2 guy; the Bears found their current starting safety pairing with picks in the fourth (Eddie Jackson) and fifth (Adrian Amos) rounds. Nick Kwiatkoski, who's in line to start next to Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker provided the Bears don't draft his replacement, was a fourth-round pick in 2016.
But the way Hicks sees it, the real improvement in the Bears’ defense is going to have to come from the players who are already in the building.
“Just us being more tailored to the personnel that we have, I think that's going to be a huge benefit,” Hicks said. “Guys like myself going into our third year in the defense, me, Danny, other guys on the defense, Floyd, just guys that you've seen it once, you saw it again and now I think we're going to be just a little bit better.”
Still, combining those improvements with a couple of contributors found through the draft would appear to be the most likely way for the Bears’ defense to go from solid to good, or good to great — depending on how you evaluate what they did in 2017.
“I think our defense has a good foundation and just keep building on that and getting better,” Hicks said. “Top 10 last year, looking for top five.”