Akiem Hicks

Pro Football Focus links Bears to some of their top free agents still available

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Pro Football Focus links Bears to some of their top free agents still available

Pro Football Focus recently named the top free agents still available who can help teams in need, and they were a couple of intriguing players linked to the Bears.

There has been a lot of chatter this offseason about the potential of the Chicago defense, but mostly about what appears to be a steadily improving secondary. On the flip side, the Bears pass rush is a chief area of concern, with PFF ranking them as one of the league’s worst units. But there is expected to be a decent amount of internal development from former No. 9 overall pick Leonard Floyd, who has missed at least four games each season. But outside of Floyd, Akiem Hicks will again be expected to be a force and Aaron Lynch will be hoping to regain his 2015 form. Here are the best options to improve the pass rush via PFF:

Junior Galette: For starters, it is likely the team would stay away from Galette because of his off-the-field issues, but his production makes him at least worth a look. Last season he had three sacks, recorded 37 total pressures (via PFF) and was available for all 16 games. Galette recorded a total of 22 sacks between the 2013 and 2014, before last year’s relatively quiet year in Washington. He has had experience at both defensive end and linebacker, so he could plug-in wherever needed in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 D. If he was to regain his double-digit sack form, he could be a force. But even if he was simply able to replicate his 37 total pressures from last season, he would make life a lot easier on Hicks, who could be in for a huge season if he isn’t constantly double-teamed.

Robert Ayers: There are two things that Ayers does consistently: pressure the QB and rack up tackles. And according to PFF, he amassed 45 QB pressures on 204 pass-rush attempts last year. At 32 years old—and 33 by the time the season is in full swing—his age is likely playing a factor in him being available at this time, but for a Bears team looking to take a leap, Ayers could be a good short-term investment. He would serve as a great backup to Jonathan Bullard, who PFF gave a solid grade of 77.9 for his performance in the Hall of Fame Game. But despite being a young, up-and-coming player, Bullard has only started four games over his two seasons. Ayers would be a great veteran presence with at least 10 starts per season in the past three years. He is an effective stop-gap DE, with the potential to have a big year in terms of sacks under Fangio's watch. 

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. 

Former CB Bryant McFadden says the Monsters of the Midway are back

Former CB Bryant McFadden says the Monsters of the Midway are back

While most of the attention paid to the Chicago Bears in 2017 was on Mitch Trubisky, it was the defense that was the real story. The Vic Fangio-led group finished the season ranked as a top-10 unit and is entering 2018 with most of the key pieces in-tact.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback and current CBS Sports analyst Bryant McFadden said Chicago’s defense is one of the key reasons why they’re a sleeper team for the upcoming season during a recent appearance on the Pick-Six Podcast.

"This is a sleeper team, but I love this team," McFadden said. "The Monsters of the Midway -- they're back. Chicago. Quiet as kept, this was a top-10 defense a year ago. Under the radar. They have, in my opinion, the best young defensive unit in the league. Young, I'm talking about youth. 

“Jacksonville, they're extremely young, but they've got a few quality, older experienced pieces. When you look at this Chicago Bears defense, youth is on all three phases as far as the front, the second level and the third level.” 

One of those key young pieces is first-round pick Roquan Smith, who’s expected to become an instant impact player and potentially the defense’s leader by season’s end.

“Roquan Smith? Boy, he's a dog and I'm not just saying that because he went to Georgia,” McFadden said. “He is a DOG. He's a tone-setter -- he's the guy who throws people out of the club. He's like the bouncer and you have to have that type of personality on your defense."

The Bears defense has more than just an exciting rookie, however. They’re returning key starters like Akiem Hicks, Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson and a healthy Leonard Floyd, who will be relied on to serve as Chicago’s sack master in 2018.

"Akiem Hicks, big time baller. Eddie Goldman is like the anchor of that defense. Leonard Floyd -- he's sneaky good, and the crazy part about Leonard Floyd is he's not strong. He's lengthy, but he finds a way to create pressure.”

The only issue facing Chicago’s defense is depth, especially at outside linebacker. If Floyd struggles to stay healthy or doesn’t take that next step in his development, the roster is void of any proven option to get after the quarterback. 

Still, there’s good reason to be optimistic about what Fangio and the Bears defense is capable of this season. Assuming the offense is improved and produces more points for the defense to work with, Hicks, Floyd, Smith and the rest of the starters may end up leading the team on a possible playoff run in January.