Question marks aplenty on Bears defensive front

  • Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) is held back by an official as he argues with Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) during their game Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

    Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) is held back by an official as he argues with Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) during their game Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

 
 
Updated 7/9/2021 8:08 PM

We continue a 12-part series grading each Bears position group A to F, including pluses and minuses based on a bell curve comparing all 32 NFL teams.

There are few if any defensive fronts in the NFL as loaded with potential, but also owning as many question marks as the Chicago Bears group.

 

Keep in mind that while the Bears play a 3-4 base defense, they are in sub packages as much as 60% to 70% of the time, when they might have four or even five linemen with a hand on the ground.

In their 4-2 nickel package, Robert Quinn becomes the right defensive end, but he already has been rated with our Edge Rusher group.

Akiem Hicks

When healthy, Hicks is one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the NFL. But coming off a 2018 Pro Bowl campaign he missed 11 games in 2019 with a devastating elbow injury.

While he only missed one game last year, he appeared slowed early by the elbow and suffered a hamstring injury in Week 10 that he rushed back from and never looked to be full speed again. If Hicks can get and stay healthy, he can dominate games from the five-technique or when he moves inside in the 40-front, he is special. Grade: A- (if healthy)

Eddie Goldman

Goldman was peaking and playing at a near Pro Bowl level when the virus hit and he elected to opt out. He missed just two games in the three seasons before last year, is still just 27 and could even benefit from the year off if he's in football shape ... and if he comes back. The latter seemed somewhat certain until he was a mysterious no-show for mandatory minicamp, and head coach Matt Nagy made it clear the absence was not excused. Goldman doesn't have exceptional size for the nose, but he is a true two-gapper with outstanding power and lower base. Will he be back? Grade: B+

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Bilal Nichols

Nichols has improved in each of his three seasons, started all 16 games last season for the first time and flashed regularly over the second half of last year. While only slightly lighter than Goldman, he doesn't have the power for the nose, but does have excellent initial quickness and is at home as either a five-technique in the 30 front or three-technique in a 40. A breakout season would not be surprising, especially if all is well with Hicks and Goldman. Grade: B

Mario Edwards Jr.

Edwards Jr. is a professional pass rusher who checks in 30-40 pounds lighter than Goldman and Nichols but is ideal for a change of pace inside in sub packages or just to give the starting three a break. He isn't great against the run but can be disruptive as a penetrator. He will be suspended the first two games of the season for a PED violation. Grade: B-

Angelo Blackson

Blackson will fill Barkevious Mingo's roster spot as more of a true down lineman, but he's nowhere near the athlete. He is a former fourth-round pick out of Auburn who has never quite blossomed after stints in Tennessee, Houston and Arizona over six seasons. He has the size to play anywhere in a 30 front or inside with four men down. Grade: C+

Mike Pennel

Pennel is the mystery man, added only after Goldman failed to show up for minicamp. He is a good football player who will line up anywhere in the 30 front and is better depth on the nose than the Bears had last year, but he isn't a full-time starter ... and he certainly isn't Goldman. Grade: C+

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's more than fair to expect a big season from Nichols in his contract year, but Hicks' health and Goldman's presence is the key.

If those three boxes are all checked, this is an excellent starting group with nice, but not special, depth. But if Hicks isn't 100% everyone else suffers, and he and Goldman at 100% can make them a nightmare for opposing offenses.

In that case, they're an A-, but no Goldman or a falloff from Hicks could drop them all the way to B-. Overall grade: B+

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