Bears position needs: Free agent, draft options on defensive line
As with much of the defense, the Bears don't need to make drastic changes on the defensive line. They simply need to make a few tweaks.
The biggest addition would be having nose tackle Eddie Goldman back after he opted out in 2020. A defensive line with Goldman, Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols would be quite promising.
The 2021 roster
Akiem Hicks is due $12 million in the final year of his contract. If the Bears want to extend the 31-year-old, they could restructure his deal to lessen the cap hit in 2021. Eddie Goldman is expected to return. Bilal Nichols is in the final year of his rookie deal and might be a candidate for an extension. The Bears also have a futures contract with LaCale London, who was on the practice squad in 2020.
Pending free agents
A number of contributors could seek employment elsewhere: Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins, Daniel McCullers, Brent Urban and Mario Edwards. The Bears won't have the cap space to re-sign them all.
Spotrac estimates Robertson-Harris could sign a contract worth $8 million a year, which probably pushes him out of the Bears' range.
Entering the final year of his contract, Hicks is a trade or cut candidate. He would cost the Bears only $1.5 million in cap space if he were traded or cut and he could probably net something like a fifth-round pick in a trade. The caveat, of course, is that the Bears love Hicks. He's a vital personality in their locker room. For that reason, an extension seems possible, even though he's 31 years old. The Bears could and should extend 24-year-old Nichols. He earned it in 2020.
Edwards faces a two-game suspension for PEDs and faced legal troubles during the season. While he was a valuable contributor in 2020, he's probably gone. Urban was a bright spot in 2020 and is worth re-signing if he can be signed cheaply. But after a series of one-year contracts, Urban could want more stability. OverTheCap.com estimates Urban was worth $3.2 million in 2020, three times what the Bears paid him. Jenkins and McCullers will probably come cheap and are definitely adequate as spot players and backups.
Free agency availability
The Bears don't need a major overhaul on the defensive line, especially if Goldman returns. The expensive free agents -- the New York Giants' Leonard Williams, Denver's Shelby Harris, New Orleans' Sheldon Rankins -- are probably too pricey.
If the Bears sign anyone, it's probably a low-cost defensive end to replace Urban or Edwards. That could be someone like Baltimore's Jihad Ward, who had three sacks in 10 games with the Ravens and is only 27 next season. Damon "Snacks" Harrison is going to be back on the market after a brief stint with the Packers. Minnesota's Jaleel Johnson, a former IHSA state champion at Montini, is going to hit free agency, although he'd be a little pricier.
With needs at quarterback, offensive line and receiver, defensive line is not a high draft priority. It could be -- and maybe should be -- a priority later in the draft, especially if the Bears don't intent to extent Hicks beyond 2021. If they don't have budget room for Urban in free agency, they could find a backup through the draft and groom him into a starter down the line.
LSU's Tyler Shelvin, Florida State's Marvin Wilson could be available in the third round or later. USC's Marlon Tuipulotu impressed at the Senior Bowl and is a day-two candidate, but could also drop. Ohio State's Tommy Togiai could be a potential third-round target. Texas A&M's Bobby Brown and UCLA's Osa Odighizuwa should be around in later rounds, among others.
How it plays out
Hicks has played his best years in Chicago and the coaching staff values his voice in the locker room. GM Ryan Pace probably offers him an extension. The Bears probably re-sign McCullers, Jenkins or a similarly priced free agent, then add youth with a late-round draft pick.