In an unusual NFL offseason in which two defensive linemen who will be mentioned in Hall of Fame conversations – Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy – were free agents, the Bears never thought about picking up the phone?
Fresh off the excitement generated by the arrival of superstar Khalil Mack last year, more than a few Bears fans clamored for the addition of another “special” name to the NFL’s No. 1 defense, but it wasn’t the salary cap or chemistry concerns that caused the team to stand pat.
Despite not having as many stars on the defensive line as the Bears have at linebacker and in the secondary, Pro Bowl starter Akiem Hicks has become one of the most dominant interior defenders in the NFL, and nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who was a Pro Bowl alternate last year, is recognized as one of the game’s better space-eaters and run defenders and probably has a few all-star games in front of him.
Things really get interesting with sophomore Bilal Nichols, who appears to have a perfect blend of Hicks’ and Goldman’s skills; converted outside linebacker Roy Robertson-Harris, who is a unique combination of size, length, power and athleticism and often was a big play waiting to happen last year; and former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard, who is in a contract year this season is going to be forced to push all four of these guys for reps if he wants to get paid.
The bottom of the depth chart is a bit iffy with veteran Nick Williams likely to claim the sixth and final defensive line spot on the roster, but the Bears will hope to see undrafted free agent Jalen Dalton, whom they signed off a tryout at rookie minicamp, or youngsters Abdullah Anderson, Daryle Banfield or Jonathan Harris take a run at him.
Here are three burning questions for the Bears on the defensive line heading into training camp:
1. Just how high is Nichols’ ceiling and how close can the 22-year-old get to it in only his second season out of Delaware?
Nichols is a natural 300-pounder with explosive strength and power who was thought to be a bit of a project in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, but he was flashing big-play ability midway through his rookie year and has plenty of room to add another 5 or 10 pounds of muscle.
It would be easy to assume Nichols’ arrival was the product of the extra attention commanded by Hicks and Goldman, but a look at the tape shows last year’s rookie manhandling veteran offensive linemen at times with both his explosion and quickness.
Although the Bears don’t release their first official depth chart until the Monday before the first exhibition game, Nichols already is penciled in as the starting five-technique across from Hicks, and he may be able to push Hicks and Goldman for reps at tackle in 40 fronts in the sub packages.
2. Will Robertson-Harris demand a spot in the starting lineup ahead of Nichols or will he continue to be a jack-of-all-trades?
As is Bullard, Robertson-Harris is in a contract year, and after becoming a Bear as another of general manager Ryan Pace’s unrestricted free-agent steals, he has become one of the more versatile weapons for defensive line coach Jay Rodgers and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
A unique specimen up front at 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, Robertson-Harris has lined up everywhere in both 30 and 40 fronts, occasionally has been seen dropping into coverage and even at his current size is capable of standing up in the 3-4 and rushing off the edge.
Former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was extremely creative in how he used Robertson-Harris, and it should be great fun to see what Pagano does with him.
3. What’s next for Bullard?
Bullard was a dominating three-technique at Florida who the Bears appeared to steal in the third round, but it was a curious move as the team had only switched from the 4-3 to a 3-4 base package under John Fox and Fangio a year earlier.
He has struggled to have an effect in his first three years and probably is a bit undersized to flourish in a 3-4 scheme, but with the Bears in 40 fronts in their sub packages as much as 50% or 60% of the time, the arrival of one more interior pass rusher could make the defense almost impenetrable.
The Bears DL will be among the NFL’s best groups if … Nichols and Robertson-Harris each takes one more giant leap forward. If so, the Bears could have the best defensive front in the game.
The wheels will fall off if … we’ve already seen the best of Nichols and Robertson-Harris and injuries keep Hicks or Goldman off the field.