“I like this.”
Those were Dick Butkus‘s words when the Bears made their second round pick in 2015, drafting Florida State nose tackle Eddie Goldman.
Butkus was not mistaken. And 11 months later, Ryan Pace brought Akiem Hicks from New England to Chicago through free agency, completing what has become arguably the best defensive tackle combination in the game today (Philadelphia has a good case, as does Aaron Donald‘s team, but neither possess a running mate for its star who is quite as good as Goldman).
In subsequent years, Pace has made this group one of the deepest in football as well, turning a converted outside linebacker and a fifth-round flier with questionable college tape into valuable contributors. In four years, he transformed the Bears’ defensive line from a downtrodden bunch of busts and Jay Ratliff into the anchor of the league’s best defense.
Here is a complete preview of the big guys on the defensive front.
Starters: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman
Primary backups: Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris
Secondary backups: Johnathan Bullard, Nick Williams
Uphill battle for a spot: Abdullah Anderson, Daryle Banfield, Jalen Dalton
Over his three-plus years in Chicago, Hicks has taken a rather unquestionable place as one of the NFL’s three to five best interior linemen. If you haven’t taken a long look at his tape, I would highly recommend doing so, because it’s awesome. Hicks combines massive size, surprising quickness, a diverse cachet of moves, and a sky-high football IQ to raise hell on almost every single snap. At his best, the eighth-year pro is completely unblockable.
Goldman constantly goes under the radar, but his contributions are worth his weight in gold. And he weighs a lot. Frequently taking on multiple blockers at a time, he has a hand on almost every run stop you’ll see on film. With Goldman on the field, the Bears allow an insanely low 2.8 yards per carry (per DaBearsBlog’s Johnathan Wood). Without him, that number jumps to 4.9. He’s sneaky good at hunting quarterbacks as well.
Behind those two, Nichols was one of the Bears’ more pleasant surprises in 2018. Eddie Jackson becoming the best safety in football tops him, but Nichols is probably first after that. He could start on plenty of NFL teams, and does in fact start in the Bears’ base package – a package they use more infrequently every year. He’ll get his reps in as a super-sub.
Robertson-Harris quietly was excellent in his niche last year, a valuable role that I explained in this thread.
Thread: Let’s talk about Roy Robertson-Harris (@BigXander95), Chuck Pagano says is having a great offseason. Specifically, his ideal fit as an IDL in sub packages and how well he complements Goldman and Hicks. Why was he so effective in this role in 2018? Find out here. #Bears pic.twitter.com/ggvyr7FMGM
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) July 6, 2019
Bullard has been disappointing since becoming a third round pick in 2016. He gets off the ball quickly, but even that has proved to be inconsistent and he doesn’t do much else well. Williams was on the 53-man roster last year but inactive every week. Of the last three, Anderson is the most well-known, primarily for being Hicks’s sideline beanie-adjuster. He is well-liked in the locker room after spending last year as an undrafted rookie on the practice squad.
Key Training Camp Battle: Jonathan Bullard vs. younger alternatives
Depth players who don’t serve a specific purpose defense don’t play special teams, aren’t that good, and are on the last year of their rookie contract generally aren’t guaranteed roster spots. I expect Bullard to be no exception.
The top four are so good that the Bears don’t really need to know what they have in the fifth man. If one or two of Williams, Anderson, Banfield or Dalton stand out in camp and preseason, the Bears can afford to cut the proven commodity (Bullard) in favor of a more unknown but younger and more controlled player.
Keys to Success
1. Rotate liberally
This has become a bit of a recurring theme in my position previews. The Bears have excellent depth across the board, so they should use said depth to keep their best players fresh late in games and – more importantly – late in the season.
Hicks, for example, played 74 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps last year. Adjusted for blowouts and a meaningless Week 17, that number is probably closer to 80. Nichols, on the other hand, was on for a mere 31 percent. Adjusted for not playing much or at all in Weeks One and Two, it’s probably closer to 35. Going forward, Hicks should stay consistently under 75 percent – maybe even 70 – and Nichols should be up to 40 or 45, if the Bears want Hicks to stay rested for a playoff run.
2. Occupy blockers
Linebackers like Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, who don’t have as much size as the prototypical linebacker, rely on two things to avoid getting caught out of position by large blockers at the second level. One is their instincts, which allow them to quickly move into position, but the other is the defensive line occupying blockers.
If Goldman, Hicks, and Nichols constantly face double-teams and at the very least hold their ground, at which they have a sterling record of success, the linebackers’ jobs become much, much easier. I explained as much in this video:
3. Continue to dominate
Just keep doing what you’re doing. The Bears’ defensive line is their best and arguably deepest unit, and they really don’t need to change a thing from last year, other than maybe giving Nichols more reps.
As long as they don’t experience steep regression, the line of scrimmage should once again be a brick wall for the Bears in 2019.