Pre-camp depth chart
1. Akiem Hicks
2. Bilal Nichols
3. Bunmi Rotimi
1. Jonathan Bullard
2. Roy Robertson-Harris
3. Cavon Walker
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.