Defensive Silver Linings: Bears Among the Best Up Front
The Chicago Bears have allowed an average of 27 points and 371.3 yards in their last three games, so it’s easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees of being winless since the bye. And because the Bears have been statistically woeful, it’s easy to look past the fact that the defensive line has actually held its own this season.
Indeed, Chicago has three players who grade among the 50 best interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading scale.
Akiem Hicks is the star with an 86.7 grade that falls under PFF’s “high quality” category, but the players next to Hicks along the line have been pretty sturdy too. Mitch Unrein’s 84.8 grade is in the “above average” category and ranks 23rd, while Eddie Goldman’s 80.0 (also “above average”) checks in at 48. All things considered, that’s something neat to uncover in a year where silver linings can be difficult to spot.
The Bears’ defense has been its best when showing an ability to stifle the run. And when they’re winning at the point of attack, it’s because Hicks, Unrein, and Goldman are doing the heavy lifting.
Chicago has two of the 12 highest graded run defenders by PFF’s standards, which has helped the team rank in the top half of the league in yards per attempt. Unrein’s 88.3 run defense grade ranks 11th and Hicks’ 87.7 comes in at 12th. Goldman’s 78.9 grade checks in at 48th, but is still among the top half of the 122 qualifiers among interior defenders.
Things haven’t gone well for GM Ryan Pace and Head Coach John Fox during their three-year stint together in Chicago, but putting together this defensive line is among the best things the tandem has done. Unearthing three quality starters in three different ways is a testament to the kind of scouting and player development the Bears need to show at every other position on the gridiron.
Goldman, you might recall, was part of Pace’s first draft class. The second-round pick from Florida State has produced since arriving to the NFL. He posted a 79.1 grade as a rookie and followed it up with an 81.2 mark in his second season, albeit in just six games. The 2018 season will be final year of his four-year rookie deal, so perhaps the Bears might want to explore extension possibilities with their top-notch nose tackle.
An extension for a top performer on the defensive line feels familiar, doesn’t it?
Hicks was the steal of free agency in 2016 when the Bears locked him in at a two-year deal worth $10 million. The diamond-in-the-rough has out-played his original contract and parlayed his success in Vic Fangio’s scheme to the tune of a hefty extension. Sometimes players taper off after signing a big deal, but not Hicks, who has a team-leading seven sacks and has been a monster up front all season.
Pace and Fox should share credit on unearthing Unrein. Pace plucked Unrein off the scrap heap on September 25, 2015 from the San Diego Chargers, who let him go in favor of bringing tight end Kyle Miller onto the roster. In three years with the Bears, he has produced grades of 72.8, 75.5, and 84.8. Fox must have liked something he saw in Unrein, who played for him from 2011 to 2014 when coached the Denver Broncos. Unrein signed a two-year deal to remain with the team back in March.
While some of Pace’s big splashes haven’t panned out, one can point to this defensive line as something for the front office to hang its hat on before diving into the most important offseason of their respective careers.