Bears

Three questions for Bears D-line: Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Three questions for Bears D-line: Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Pre-camp depth chart

DE
1. Akiem Hicks
2. Bilal Nichols
3. Bunmi Rotimi

1. Jonathan Bullard
2. Roy Robertson-Harris
3. Cavon Walker

NT
1. Eddie Goldman
2. John Jenkins
3. Nick Williams

1. Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Hicks led the Bears with 8 1/2 sacks last year, and combined with his excellent work against the run probably should’ve been enough to get him to the Pro Bowl (it wasn’t). Still, 2017 was a feel-good year for Hicks, who signed a four-year contract extension a day before the season started and then turned in career-best production.

With the Bears’ pass rush having the most questions of any segment of this team coming into training camp, Vic Fangio will have to hope Hicks not only doesn’t take a step back in 2018, but improves off what he did a year ago. 

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said he wants to see Hicks play with greater consistency in 2018 — and if he does that, it would allow him to find that extra gear in his play. 

“Consistency with technique, consistency with production,” Rodgers said. “More opportunities to get in on tackles. I think his solo tackles were really high as compared to previous years, I’d like to see his assists go up, which means that he’s finding ways to get to the ball even faster. All those things you take into consideration when you’re evaluating a guy and seeing a guy if he gets better from Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3.” 

2. When will Eddie Goldman get his second contract?

Goldman’s place in the Bears’ defensive line isn’t in question, even if his surface-level numbers (27 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) aren’t exactly eye-popping. What Goldman primarily succeeds at — pushing back two interior offensive linemen weighing about 600 pounds — doesn’t show up in a box score, but it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by his coaches and teammates. 

“He’s a beast, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’m glad to have him in front of me. He’s not a guy who’s rah-rah, but when he’s out there, he’s out there making plays. It doesn’t show up on film but he’s the key, he’s a vital part of this defense. He’s wrecking stuff in there. As a linebacker, that’s my best friend. 

“The more he can wreck, the more I can make plays and we all can make plays. It shows to us, and probably not to the public as much, but to us we know what his game is and we know what he brings to this defense. He’s definitely making us better.”

Goldman and Hicks played off each other well last year, and with Hicks (and Fangio) sticking around for a while, it would only make sense for Goldman — who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract — to be Ryan Pace’s top priority to sign to an extension during training camp. It seems like a matter of when, not if, that deal will be reached. 

“I don’t know about you all, but I don’t put any of the highlight reels on (that are on) national television,” Rodgers said. “I have a highlight reel in my room. And if I see him knock people back and make a play, or knock another guy back on his way to the quarterback that affects the pocket, that’s a highlight in my mind.”

3. Who emerges opposite Hicks as the starting DE?

While the consistency achieved across Fangio’s defense has been a point of praise for the Bears, at least inside Halas Hall, the impact of the departure of defensive end Mitch Unrein may have flown under the radar. Coaches and teammates praised how well Unrein fit a role on the Bears’ defensive front last year, with his consistency and knowledge allowing Hicks and Goldman to play faster. Consider what Rodgers said about Unrein last fall:

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “…When he’s out there on the field with those guys, he allows those guys to play fast. And if they know what’s coming their way, then they can play even faster.”

Unrein signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, and the Bears didn’t make a move to replace him in free agency. So that means there will be a relatively open competition for the third starting spot on the defensive line come training camp between, primarily, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols. 

Each player has his own strengths and weaknesses. Bullard, a 2016 third-round pick, showed flashes at times last year but only has two sacks and 33 tackles in 30 career games. The Bears believe Robertson-Harris is an ascending player with pass rushing potential, but he’s only entering his second year playing 3-4 defensive end and would need to make significant strides in training camp. Nichols is a fifth-round pick who the Bears see as having some pass-rushing potential, too, but expecting a guy who played defensive tackle at Delaware to step into a primary role on an NFL defensive line is a little lofty.

One other note here, though: Even if the Bears have a true “starter,” expect there to be plenty of rotating with the spot(s) opposite Hicks and Goldman. For all the praise Unrein received last year, he didn’t even play half of the Bears’ defensive snaps, so having at least two other defensive linemen emerge as viable options would be beneficial for this group. 

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

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USA Today Sports Images

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

DENVER — With Roquan Smith finally in tow, the Bears headed to Denver on Tuesday for a pair of joint practices with the Broncos leading up Saturday’s preseason game at Mile High Stadium. 

The Bears last held joint practices with the New England Patriots in 2016, and for coach Matt Nagy, this week will be his first experience with practicing with and against another team. For Bears players, the opportunity to practice against opposition — instead of their teammates, as has been the case for nearly a month — will inject some life into the dog days of the preseason. 

“It’s a great opportunity to compete against other guys and you get to go out there, and you’ve been beating on your guys all year long and all training camp long,” defensive end Akiem Hicks. “It’s an opportunity to have some other type of competition. And then to finish it up and play them at the end of the week, it just works well.”

Nagy said on Sunday he doesn’t anticipate Wednesday and Thursday’s practices will be live, and Broncos coach Vance Joseph said on Tuesday he spoke with Nagy about working to prevent the kind of fights that have popped up in some other joint practices this month. Washington and the Jets, most notably, had an all-out brawl earlier this week in a joint practice. 

“It’s always good the biggest thing when you do these team scrimmages together, you just want to stay away form the fights,” Nagy said. “As long as guys do that it’s definitely a benefit for both teams.”

The main benefit lies in the boost players should get from competing against another team's players instead of their teammates. That competitive jolt is beneficial, especially for a team that’s been practicing longer than anyone else besides the Baltimore Ravens thanks to participating in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 2. 

“It’s a different defensive scheme all week,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We are lucky to go against a great defense in practice, but it will be nice to go against someone else (with) different styles and different coverages.

“It’s going to be competition all week, so we definitely have to bring it. It will be a great week for us to get better and compete and see who wants to win every single snap — not just a game, not just practice periods, but every single snap, every single rep.”

For Smith, Wednesday and Thursday will be a head-first dive into the Bears’ defense. Even if coaches try to ease him into things — which won’t necessarily be the case — it will come against an offense not controlled by Nagy and Mark Helfrich. These two practices will be a good early test for where Smith is in terms of knowledge and football shape after his four-week holdout. 

And for the rest of the Bears, these two practices represent an opportunity to compete against someone different while breaking up the monotony of preseason practices. That’s generally a good thing — even if you’re, say, a tight end who all of a sudden has to try to block Von Miller. 

“I know they have some good edge guys,” tight end Adam Shaheen said with a bit of a grin. “… I think once we saw the schedule, all the tight ends were looking at those guys. it’ll be a good challenge and a good chance to get better.”

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), right? That’s one of the benefits of him being here now but we just have to see. And I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”