It all starts up front. That’s something we’ve been hearing from the football sage the very minute the game of football became prevalent in our lives. That statement was, is and will always be true. While the game is won on the outside with big plays those big plays will never get made if the Line doesn’t hold up their blocks allowing linebackers to sweep in and take down running backs or close holes altogether. Also helps Defensive Backs in coverage when the big guys get in the Quarterbacks face forcing balls into coverage for picks, deflections and fumbles forced and recovered.
That is the job of the Defensive Line. In a 3-4 scheme it is even less glorious as you basically have three interior linemen in comparison to two in a 4-3. In a 40 front the defensive Ends usually get to make the accolade getting big plays. In a 30 front it’s the Outside linebackers. Of course the knowledgeable football fan knows those interior players have as much to do with a defenses success even when they aren’t the ones making the plays. However, with this edition of the Chicago Bears the interior guys are going to be the ones making a lot if not most of those plays. The Bears Edge depth chart is less than stellar. I’ll save the hardcore Edge analysis for my Outside Linebacker preview, but this is going to have to be a Defensive Line that may have to initiate the action rather than perform in a supporting role more than most 3-4 defensive Line units.
Who makes the team and how will the depth chart look beginning September 9th versus Green Bay? Well I’ll save that for an upcoming blog when I predict who makes the team but for now here are the participants who will battle for the Defensive Line roster spots.
Locks to make the team: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols:
All these names are kind of no brainers said for perhaps one, and only because Nichols is an unproven rookie. I think it would be a huge upset if Nichols did not make the team. The only reason I can see how he doesn’t is if he has a devastating injury. Nichols has the size and measureables to be an impact player as a rookie when subbing in for the veterans and will hopefully sustain a top level of play while giving overworked vets like Hicks who played nearly 85% of the defensive snaps last season a rest.
Standing 6’4″ and 290 he has the size to bang inside as a Defensive Tackle and the athleticism and strength (29 reps) to play Defensive End in a 30 front defense. He doesn’t have great length however, which probably projects him more inside when the Bears are in their under front alignment. At 33 3/8″ long, his arms aren’t exactly short. He’s about average for a Defensive Lineman. He is quick and fast enough to play End too as he measured in at 306 pound at the combine and ran an impressive 4.95 40. Bears currently have him listed at 290 so my guess is he’s even faster and quicker. He’s not short on confidence either. When asked to compare himself to a current NFL player he chose one of the best interior lineman in the game in Fletcher Cox. If he comes close to that the Bears will be in excellent shape up front.
Of course it all starts with the extremely underappreciated Hicks. Not among Bear fans, local media and of course everyone associated with the Bears, but in the league and the national media. The fact that Hicks has put together two seasons like the past two and hasn’t gotten any recognition of note is not just a grave injustice, but one having to be the cause of pure ignorance. In the past two seasons he’s played in all 32 games, around 75% of the defensive snaps, 2 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 15 1/2 sacks, and 75 tackles. Amazing production for a 3-4 Defensive End. Clearly one of the best in the league. Hopefully winning is the key to his personal accolades and this team delivers the wins.
He’s also one of the best and most active players in the league with offseason charitable work and big time with the youth programs and children’s hospital visits and philanthropy. He’s also one of the main leaders of the team during the week in the locker room, weight room, practice field, and film room. He’s also a leader on the field on game day and is one of the more cerebral players on the team. He is assignment sound as well as a spectacular playmaker when the play comes to him. At around 10 Million a year he has to be one of the bigger bargains there are in the NFL.
Bullard is kind of at a crossroads as far as his career is concerned. Even though he did progress a little from his rookie season he still finds himself in a make or break season ahead. His play was solid at times, but there were far too little of those flash plays you want from your primary 3-4 End. His numbers weren’t there even though he had the primary number of snaps at the opposite End from Hicks.
He still has potential and it’s up to the Bears coaching staff to get it out of him, but in year three it needs to happen now or the Bears will likely non tender him and let him play out his final season on his rookie deal without an extension. Of course he can always play his way back in their good graces with a great season in year four just as Kyle Fuller did and Kevin White is attempting to do this season. However, there is competition to take his job so he’d best be wary and play to his top form without having to do that, because he may not get the playing time to make that last season impression.
One of those players looking to jump ahead of Bullard on the depth chart is Robertson-Harris. He did flash in the few opportunities he did have. He payed in 13 games starting none and was primarily used as a core special teamer more so than he was on defense. He played just 31% of the snaps versus Atlanta, 38% vs. Tampa Bay, 17% vs. Pittsburgh, 20% vs. Green bay, 10% vs. Minnesota, 10% vs. Baltimore, 6% vs. Carolina, 0% vs. Detroit, 28% vs. San Francisco, 37% vs. Cincinnati, 41% vs. Detroit, 37% vs. Cleveland, and finally 51% of the snaps against the Minnesota Vikings. In spite of the small sample size he did manage to get 2 sacks, 1 pass defended, 1 fumble recovery, 7 tackles and countless pressures and hits. With more time on the field there’s no telling what kind of a impact he can make with he combination of size, strength, and athleticism on top of being a tireless worker and great character guy.
Goldman is another player that needs to be on the field more. When he is, he’s a dominant force. A player who can plug holes and stop an inside running game single handedly as well as a guy who can occupy blockers to open up plays for the Linebackers to swoop in and make defensive stops. When out for his 3 games the Bears gave up the two highest run totals of the year in two of those three missed games. He can also rush the passer a little bit. For a 330 pound man he can really move. The term that comes immediately to mind is dancing Bears. He doesn’t just collapse the pocket. He can win on the outside too as he did various times throughout his career on stunts and twists. A strategy Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio employs in his main pressure scheme. He can also open twists and stunts up for his teammates as he really can attract a lot of attention and have doubles come his way while leaving a Defensive End or an Outside Linebacker free to get all the glory with sacks, hits and pressures.
Bubble players for the final spot on the 53 man roster: John Jenkins, Nick Williams:
Jenkins did a pretty good job with the team last season as a very serviceable rotation Tackle. He is assignment sound and has a very good anchor which allows him to hold his spot while giving teammates a chance to make a play. Primarily a run down Tackle he does an impressive job just holding his position taking away holes from would be Runners. He does nothing special or spectacular but he is the type of backup grunt every team needs around. As a grizzled vet he provides leadership and awareness on the field in executing his assignments. Jenkins has to be the favorite to make the sixth spot on the line as the incumbent. Especially since he can play the Nose when Goldman needs a blow.
Williams is another veteran who may just be unlucky enough to get caught in the numbers game as there are only a few spots available on the roster. He primarily plays End who can kick inside on nickle and dime downs and the Bears are pretty well stocked with players who can play End as well as inside if need be. However, he does have the versatility to be kicked inside at nearly and Head Coach Matt Nagy is familiar with him from his time in Kansas City. The final spot on the roster for Defensive Linemen is far from solidified so Williams can sneak his way on if he has himself an impressive camp and preseason.
Dark horse candidates and practice squad possibilities: Cavon Walker, Bunmi Rotimi Abdullah Anderson jr.:
All three are undrafted fliers who have less than an outside chance to make the 53 man roster, but it’s been done before. However, the more realistic chance is one, or if the stars are aligned right, all three of these payers makes an NFL practice squad once their waved. Maybe one of them impresses enough to actually make his way on the Bears practice squad.
One player that has that chance is Walker out of Maryland. He has the size and the measureables to eventually be an NFL 3-4 Defensive End. He had a very good pro day putting up a 4.97 40 which is a very good time for a 285 pound man. He also put up 31 reps on the bench press so he is strong as well as quick. He may be a player who can make cutting him a very hard decision. Especially if he shows out on special teams.
Rotimi is not as impressive athletically as Walker. He’s significantly lighter at 273 and ran a slower 40 with a 5.05 time. He does project as a special teams player only, as he’s a tweener size wise at 6’3″ 273. Height wise he projects as an edge player and weight wise as a 4-3 Defensive End but not with the athleticism enough to make it as a 4-3 End or a 3-4 Edge. Unless he bulks up and kicks inside at Tackle I see him making a living as a core special teamer if he maxes out his potential at best.
Anderson jr. has the perfect size as a 3-4 defensive Lineman who can play inside at Tackle or at either End spot. At 6’4′ 300 pounds he’s an impressive specimen who looks like he can bang with the big boys upfront. Originally projected as a late round pick he managed to go undrafted and the Bears pounced. Anderson jr. probably has the best shot at making the final 53 man roster of the three from this group. I would not be surprised if he did make the final spot on the depth chart as a defensive Lineman. He’s a powerful player with an aggressive nasty style that could make an impression.
The Bucknell product had a very productive career in college. He’s the cousin of Tennessee Defensive Tackle Austin Johnson so there’s pedigree there. He was a second team all conference player as a freshman, and a first teamer his next three seasons. In his freshman season he had 28 tackles 3 for a loss. As a sophomore he had 46 tackles 8 for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Anderson jr. had a monster Junior year where he had 55 tackles with 13.5 for a loss and an impressive 8.5 sacks with 5 pass breakups and 2 blocked kicks. He regressed a little in his senior season with 42 tackles 9 for a loss, and 2.5 sacks but did get 2nd team FCS All-American honors.
Up Next: Offensive Line