If you’re curious to understand how the Chicago Bears defense ranked in the top-10 in scoring defense and total yards in 2017, your search for answers will start along the defensive line.
The Bears received another Pro Bowl-caliber year from Akiem Hicks, a healthy season from nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a career-year from Mitch Unrein, and contributions from Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris along the way.
There is an argument to be made that the Bears’ defensive line was the most productive group on either side of the ball. And yet, there is also an argument to be made that the best is yet to come from this group.
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Akiem Hicks signed a four-year deal last September that could net him as much as $48 million. If the first year is any indication of what’s to come, it will be money well spent. Hicks was Pro Football Focus’ 15th-best interior defender and was a top-10 run defender by the site’s metrics. He also pulled down a career-best 8.5 sacks.
Eddie Goldman isn’t going to provide much as far as sacks are concerned, but as a nose tackle, he is as stout as they come. He enters the fourth year of his rookie contract and has been quite the second-round find for GM Ryan Pace. Goldman missed just one game and could cash in with an extension this summer if he stays healthy.
Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris each flashed in reserve roles. Bullard took a nice step in his development and played in all 16 games and even made three starts. Robertson-Harris did a little bit of everything for the Bears, including special teams work. He had a big preseason and has transformed his body since coming along as an undrafted free agent.
Undrafted free agent Rashaad Coward provided some late-season depth at nose tackle, while Caushaud Lyons is the only defensive lineman on the practice squad.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
Mitch Unrein was quite the find for the John Fox-Ryan Pace tag team. Unrein was one of the best run-stuffing 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL last season. He earned an 83.9 overall grade, while his 87.2 grade as a run defender ranked as the 14th best among players at his position.
In fact, he’s the highest-graded interior defender on the market:
A look at the top of the free agent class for interior defenders pic.twitter.com/8otGUOo7pM
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 19, 2018
John Jenkins appeared in eight games and started the one game Goldman missed in 2017. It’s unlikely the Bears bring him back, especially if they believe Coward is a suitable second-stringer at nose tackle in his second year.
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
There isn’t anyone who necessarily fits the bill here. And that’s a good thing.
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
The Bears could maintain some stability along the line without breaking the bank by re-signing Unrein, who will play in his age 31 season in 2018. Though, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Unrein receives a significant raise and an expanded role from another team. Still, it’s possible that Unrein returns to a familiar place where he’s seen his best playing days.
Washington’s Vita Vea is the top-rated 3-4 defensive end who will be available in the upcoming NFL Draft and is projected to be a top-15 pick. Vea wouldn’t be a sexy pick by draft standards, but putting that 6-foot-5, 332-pound frame on the line with Hicks and Goldman would make for a formidable trio.
There are some mid-to-late-round options who could better serve the Bears should they choose to not pull another draft day shocker and pick Vea with the eighth pick. North Carolina State’s B.J. Hill looked good at the Senior Bowl and is probably best fit as a nose tackle. Da’Shawn Hand was considered nation’s best recruit in the 2014, according to Rivals.com, but never lived up to the billing at Alabama. There’s still probably some untapped upside that might intrigue Fangio if the Bears were willing to take a risk in the middle rounds.