The combination of end Akiem Hicks and nose tackle Eddie Goldman gives the Bears the beginnings of an excellent defensive line in their base 3-4.
By most accounts, Hicks has been the team’s defensive MVP in each of his two seasons since leaving the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent after the 2015 season. Always a strong run defender, the 6-foot-5, 336-pound Hicks had a career-best seven sacks in 2016. He exceeded that with team bests of 8½ sacks and 20 quarterback pressures in 2017.
Hicks led all Bears linemen in tackles both years, including 54 last year, and he has enough athleticism to move inside and contribute as a pass rusher in nickel. Goldman was second among Bears linemen last year with 43 tackles, very good production for a nose. He had just 1½ sacks last year but had 4½ as a rookie in 2015 and can push the pocket.
John Jenkins was added for inside depth last season on a one-year deal, but he was inactive for eight games and didn’t do much when he played, so the 6-foot-3, 327-pound veteran free agent isn’t expected back.
The Bears need 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard to step up at the other DE spot this year, especially if steady, reliable veteran Mitch Unrein leaves in free agency. Bullard has occasionally displayed the explosiveness that enables him to make flash plays, but he needs to become a more consistent contributor.
Roy Robertson-Harris was an undrafted linebacker in 2016 but has grown into a 6-foot-7, 294-pound defensive end with potential, and he had 2 sacks in the final four games last season after earning increased playing time. He and Bullard could battle for a starting job.
Depth-wise there is just Rashaad Coward, an undrafted rookie last year who spent most of the season on the practice squad and played in just one game.
There is a wealth of D-line talent in free agency, although some of that could disappear before mid-March as teams re-sign their own UFAs. It’s unlikely a rebuilding team like the Bears would be interested in longtime studs like Kyle Williams and Haloti Ngata, who are still valuable players but are both 34.
Sheldon Richardson and Dontari Poe are younger, more expensive options. Poe, a massive (6-3, 346-pound) nose tackle, played in Kansas City from 2012-16, when Bears head coach Matt Nagy was on the Chiefs’ staff. Both are just 27 and have some pass-rush ability. Richardson would be an end in the Bears’ base, but he could move inside in nickel.
More affordable would be the Eagles’ run-stuffing nose Beau Allen or the Panthers’ Star Lotulelei, a 2013 first-round pick who has been a bit of a career underachiever. But he’s missed just five starts in five years on an excellent defense.
Lotulelei’s younger brother, Lowell, had a disappointing 2017 season at Utah but could be worth a late-round gamble based on his play a year earlier. In 2016, he played at a lighter weight, showed better agility and much greater enthusiasm as a blocker-occupying run defender.
Washington’s run-stuffing nose tackle Vita Vea is the top 3-4 lineman in this year’s draft. He could line up at any D-line spot in the Bears’ base but won’t add much to the pass rush.
As usual, Alabama has some top pro prospects. Da’Ron Payne might be the first player taken, if all his tape looked like the National Championship game, when he was especially disruptive. Regardless, he’s still a first-round talent. At 6-2, he’s a bit short for a 5-technique in a 3-4, but he has many skills – strength, explosion, tenacity -- that translate to almost any position in any scheme.
Payne’s teammate, Da’Shawn Hand, is also scheme diverse but lacks some bulk and was never a consistent performer at Alabama. He has the potential to be great, but could be a boom-or-bust player and because of that will be pushed into the second day or later.
Stanford’s Harrison Phillips has grown into a 6-foot-4, 295-pounder with versatility. Amazingly, he led the Cardinal in tackles last season with 103, rare production for a lineman, and 17 of his tackles were for negative yardage. Depending on his Combine performance, Phillips may elevate himself into first-round consideration.