As apart of an ongoing series, Taking Inventory aims to assess every position set on the Bears, taking a peek at the previous season and provide a sneak peek into projections for the certain group. For day six, we take a gander at the defensive line crew.
The modern emergence of the 3-4 set and the evolution of a distinct pass rusher rather than a traditional outside linebacker position have considerably chipped the responsibility of a defensive line in seasons past, nearly melding the linebackers with the typical defensive ends. The progression of creativity in defenses and increasingly speedy offenses forcing modern coach’s ingenuity has led to a slight blur between the edge rushers and classical down ends on the line.
After all, defenses come naturally more fluid and unrestrained from rigid rulebooks and stark position caps. As spread offenses trickle in from college, bearing dreaded speed and versatility, the emanation of a pass rusher to keep the upbringing of this speed and versatility in check have steadily replaced the far more static down lineman. Demanding sluggish giants to shag nimble backs and prolific rushing attacks would be a herculean task, inadvertently triggering the necessity of skilled linebackers in lieu of burly lineman designed to plug the inside run.
However, even with the adoption of reasonably more unorthodox methods of defensive schemes, the defensive line still carry a game-changing weight. While mostly in the ever-relevant stuffing duties, heavily aiding the pass rush comes with the job. Though the Von Millers and Khalil Macks govern the majority of pass rushing duties at the edge, nothing can diminish the impact the JJ Watts and Aaron Donalds can have.
And for the Bears, consistent Pro Bowl snub Akiem Hicks sits at the center of it all. A career high 8.5 sacks led the team en route to the seventh highest sack total in the league. A brutal slide in the latter half of the season caused the numbers to dwindle but multiple two-sack games in the first five weeks of the season highlight his talent.
Purging the majority of effective pass rushers will theoretically pressure the marginally disappointing Leonard Floyd and the horribly raw Aaron Lynch into a dynamic quarterback chasing duo but Hicks remains as the most vital gear in the pass rush. Putting up a season similar to his seven-sack eight-game stretch to start off the 2017 season will put his name in the same breath as the top lineman in the league.
Opposite of Hicks will be former third-rounder, Jonathan Bullard. Praised for his violent disruption at Florida, he will have first dibs at the spotlight with the Bears dropping routine starter Mitch Unrein after a series of frustrating campaigns out of him. With two full seasons of marination under his belt, Bullard will be a trendy breakout candidate for this upcoming season. Considering the little support coming exterior to the line, an alfresco Bullard will be an intriguing story to follow.
In the middle will be fellow breakout candidate Eddie Goldman. Following a career year with eleven more tackles than his charmingly successful rookie year, he will rightfully earn a long-term contract subsequent to his expiring rookie deal this season. While the sack numbers fell off a tad, Goldman can’t be expected to be efficient in the pass rush with the edge so rickety. Once Floyd takes the next step, be prepared to see the middle uncork and allow for Goldman to achieve his pass-rushing potential.
Right behind him will be Bilal Nichols, the new blood from Delaware. Though raw, his explosive attack on the inside can be expanded upon and can hopefully service the rotation early in his career.
In order to supplement the ramshackle pass rush, freshly drafted Kylie Fitts will be a curious project for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The Utah product suffered through an injury-riddled final season and a 2016 year that saw only ten games from him, which all (considerably) nipped his draft stock, allowing him to tumble to the sixth round and into the Bears lap. Armed with an explosive rip and swipe move set, Fitts will specialize in deepening the pass rush as a rookie, if healthy.
As the league’s worst in run stuffing and merely average in runningback yards allowed, a ton will rest on Bullard’s ability to breakout and Goldman’s ability to take the next step in tandem with the edge’s ability to get to the quarterback. While a tall order, Hicks has the capacity to explode this season and under the right circumstances, could almost carry the pass rush so long as Floyd flourishes as expected.
With a few question marks and a couple of x-factors, the defensive line will be a boom-or-bust group for the Bears. Hicks will safely be relied on for the majority of the production but if Bullard doesn’t detonate could plunge the Bears into hot water. But if the pieces fall into the right places, the defensive line could be a point of strength for a budding Bears defense.