What does it say that in an unusual NFL offseason in which not one but two defensive linemen who will be at least mentioned in eventual Hall of Fame conversations, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, were available in free agency and the Chicago Bears never blinked or picked up the telephone?
Fresh off the excitement and results from 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 number one defense, but it wasn’t the salary cap or chemistry concerns that caused the team to stand pat.
While the club isn’t as deep here in star talent as it is at linebacker and the secondary, Pro Bowl starter Akiem Hicks has become one of the most dominant interior defenders in the NFL, and nose tackle Eddie Goldman 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.
And where things really get interesting are sophomore Bilal Nichols appears to be the perfect blend of Hicks’ and Goldman’s skills, converted outside rush linebacker Roy Robertson-Harris is a unique blend of size, length, power and athleticism who was often a big play waiting to happen last year, and former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard 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 DL spot on the roster, but the Bears will hope to see UDFA Jalen Dalton, who they signed off a tryout at rookie minicamp or youngsters Abdullah Anderson, Daryle Banfield or Jonathan Harris take a run at him.
3 Burning Questions:
1. Just how high is Nichols’ ceiling and how close can the 22-year old get to it in just his second season out of FCS 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 by halfway through his rookie year and has plenty of room to add another five or ten 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 O-linemen at times with both his explosion and quickness.
While the team doesn’t release its first official depth chart until the Monday before the first exhibition, Nichols is already 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?
Like Bullard, Robertson-Harris is in a contract year, and after becoming a Bear as another of Ryan Pace’s URFA steals, he has become one of first Vic Fangio’s and DL coach Jay Rodgers’ and now Chuck Pagano’s most versatile weapons.
A truly unique specimen up front at 6-7, 295 pounds, Robertson-Harris has lined up everywhere in both 30 and 40 fronts, has occasionally been seen dropping into coverage, and even at his current size is still capable of standing up in the 3-4 and rushing off the edge.
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 that the Bears appeared to steal in the third round, but it was a curious move as the team had just switched from the 4-3 to a 3-4 base package under John Fox and Fangio a year earlier.
He has struggled to make an impact in his first 3 years and is probably a bit under-sized to flourish in a 3-4 scheme, but with the Bears in 40 fronts in their sub packages as much as 50 or 60 percent of the time, the arrival of one more interior pass rusher could make the defense almost impenetrable.
The Bears will be in great shape if . . .
Should Nichols and Robertson- Harris each take one more giant leap forward, the Bears could have the best defensive front in the game.
The Bears are in trouble if . . .
We’ve already seen the best of these two and injuries keep Hicks or Goldman off the field.