Chicago Bears training camp is less than a month away, which means it’s time to start looking ahead at the roster the team is bringing to Lake Forest.
We’ve covered the entire offense, looking at quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive line. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball, beginning with the guys in the trenches; the defensive line.
This position group had some stellar play from its starters such as defensive ends Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols, while also getting production from a few key reserves like Mario Edwards Jr. But there was one noticeable absence throughout the entire season that created a figurative (and sometimes literal) hole in the middle of the line with nose tackle Eddie Goldman opting out of the season due to concerns surround the COVID-19 virus.
Will Goldman, Hicks, and Nichols be ready to go when camp arrives? Who might be this year’s unsung hero on the line? It’s time to dive in and preview the Bears’ defensive linemen heading into training camp.
Let’s begin with the player on the minds of many Bears fans. Eddie Goldman was sorely missed last year when he sat out the entire season after opting out in the summer. Without the Bears top run stuffer, the team’s run defense wasn’t the same. In 2020, they allowed 113.4 yards per game, compared to 102 in 2019.
Goldman was the only starter on offense and defense to opt out, but the expectation heading into this year was that he would be back and ready to go. Those expectations were tempered earlier this summer, however, when Goldman did not attend the team’s mandatory minicamp. Bears head coach Matt Nagy didn’t seem thrilled with Goldman’s absence, but said he expects the seven-year veteran to report to camp on time.
“As everyone knows, it’s a mandatory minicamp and he’s not here,” Nagy said during mini camp. “We did have a discussion with him and obviously I’m going to keep between us, but we do expect him to be at training camp rocking and rolling there at training camp.”
Since then, there have been retirement rumors, workout footage and guarantees that Goldman will indeed show up when the Bears report back to Halas Hall later this month. We’re taking Nagy’s side and assuming he’ll be ready to go in a few weeks. What kind of shape he’s in, though, is another question.
With all of the news and conversation surrounding Goldman, it’s easy to forget what happened (or didn’t happen) with Akiem Hicks this offseason. Heading into free agency, it seemed either Hicks or cornerback Kyle Fuller would be released due to salary cap constraints. It was Fuller who wound up getting the axe, but trade rumors continued to follow Hicks throughout the offseason.
The 31-year old veteran has been a staple on the Bears defensive line since 2016, and is entering the final year of his four-year contract. He’s owed over $10.5 million this season, which could be his final in Chicago. Hicks is still a force to be reckoned with, but did seem to take a bit of a step backwards compared to his first few years in Chicago. Last season, he finished with 49 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and one pass defended in 15 games.
Hicks is often referred to as the heart and soul of the Bears defense. He’s taken players such as Bilal Nichols under his wing and has an animated presence both on the field and on the bench. He’s going to play another key role in both run and pass defense for the Bears this season, but this very well could be his final training camp as a Bear.
If there was one beneficiary to Goldman’s absence in 2020, it was Bilal Nichols. The former 2018 fifth-round draft pick took another step in his development when he primarily played at the nose tackle position. Nichols recorded 40 total tackles, seven for loss, five sacks, three passes defended and one interception, all of which were career highs.
With Goldman expected to return to his starting spot, Nichols will likely slide back to defensive end, but could still see time at nose tackle given the success he’s had and the questions surrounding Goldman. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Nichols will be a crucial player this season for defensive coordinator Sean Desai and might be someone who sees a contract extension sooner rather than later.
As stated earlier, the Bears got a lot of production from their reserve defensive linemen in 2020. That production was led by Mario Edwards Jr., who was a surprise addition to the team when the season began.
Released by the New Orleans Saints during roster cutdowns, Edwards signed with the Bears just prior to their regular season opener. Edwards showed he could still be a productive player as he had 17 tackles and four sacks for the Bears last season. His contributions earned him a contract extension, signing a deal for three years and $11.66 million.
Edwards will be a key rotational player on the defensive line, but will miss the first two games of the regular season due to violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Another player that should have a spot in the defensive line rotation is Angelo Blackson. A former fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, Blackson has played with the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, and Arizona Cardinals before signing a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the Bears last offseason.
Playing for the Cardinals in 2020, Blackson has himself a career year, totaling 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He started nine games for the Cardinals and played in every one throughout the season.
Like Edwards Jr., Blackson will see time on the line spelling Hicks and/or Nichols.
Mike Pennel was one of the Bears’ most recent signings as he joined the team on a one-year deal as mandatory minicamp broke in June. At first glance, the signing was seen as an indication Goldman may not return to the team. But the Bears may also be just be bringing in more competition at the position.
Pennel is entering his eighth season in the league and has primarily been a contributor in a reserve role. He’s played for the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets, but was most recently with the Kansas City Chiefs the last two years, helping them win Super Bowl LIV.
Last year for the Chiefs, Pennel played in 14 games and had 29 total tackles with no sacks. He will have a shot to earn a roster spot when camp begins, but he’ll need to battle some rookies to earn it.
Khyiris Tonga was the final selection for the Bears in 2021 NFL draft, chosen with the 250th pick in the seventh round. Tonga is listed at 6-foot-2 and 326 pounds and seems to make life miserable for offensive linemen. He had 36 total tackles and 3.5 sacks last year at BYU.
Tonga has an opportunity to learn from one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in the game in Goldman and should have the inside track for a roster spot over Pennel. His development this preseason will be interesting to watch.
Daniel Archibong is an undrafted free agent out of Temple University who played more than just defensive tackle in college. The former Owl spent some time at tight end during his tenure, but likely won’t see any time there in the NFL.
Archibong had 21 total tackles and two sacks last year. He could surprise when camp gets underway, but he’s a longshot to make the final roster.
LaCale London spent all of the 2020 season on the Bears practice squad and is back this year as he attempts to land a spot on the active roster. The former Western Illinois defensive end will have to go through a lot to have that chance as he’s far down on the depth chart. Another stint on the practice squad is likely his best bet, though having preseason games this year will give him a real chance to show what he has against other NFL opponents.