It’s unlikely there will be a more stable room inside Halas Hall this offseason than the DL room, overseen by the Bears’ longest-tenured assistant coach, Jay Rodgers.
Chicago was without lynchpin Akiem Hicks for 11 games and missed fellow starters Bilal Nichols and Eddie Goldman for four combined games with injuries yet allowed an average of 3.9 yards per carry, ranked 6th in the NFL and only one-tenth of a yard more than in 2018, when their top four lineman missed a total of one game.
Of course, the Bears sorely missed Hicks, their leader in sacks and tackles for loss since his 2016 arrival. Khalil Mack’s disruptiveness waned without the team’s only additional consistent commander of double teams. That was most apparent in Chicago’s drastic decline in sack and INT percentage, from No. 9 and No. 1 overall two seasons ago to 27th and 28th, respectively.
Still, the Bears expect back their top four lineman and could also find a better pass-rushing bookend for Mack, the missing element compounding the first extended injury absence of Hicks’ eight-year career.
2019 Matter of Fact: Though the Bears’ run defense remained stout and efficient despite attrition, it wasn’t without an adjustment period. Josh Jacobs and Latavius Murray immediately went off for more than 100 rushing yards following Hicks dislocating his elbow, matching the total number of backs who eclipsed the century mark against Hicks and Co. in the previous 20 games combined.
Following that two-game stretch, the Bears didn’t allow another 100-yard rusher until the regular-season finale, when Hicks, Eddie Goldman and both starting inside linebackers were inactive. Granted, it was Minnesota’s third-stringer Mike Boone running roughshod over the Bears, but if we remove that 17-148 rush line, they allowed the same 3.8-rush yard average as 2018.
No funny math required: After playing his first 28 career games spanning five years without a sack, Nick Williams’ 6 trailed only Mack (8.5) for the team lead.
Cap Commitment: The D-line has nearly $24 million allocated to the 2020 cap, or 11.1 percent, ranked 19th in the NFL, per spotrac.com. However, that doesn’t account for RFA Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ll likely command a qualifying offer of approximately $3 million. The Bears also may have to replace Williams, who’s set to maximize his earning power for the first time on the open market.
And with blue chip and Pro Bowl-caliber talents in Hicks and Goldman combining for nearly $23 million in cap space, they may look to do so on the cheap. Bear in mind, Pace didn’t sign or draft a D-lineman last year and spent only the fifth-rounder on Nichols in 2018. The Bears are due to invest here, but they’d so while expecting more production from Nichols and Robertson-Harris in potential contract years.
Nichols broke his hand in the opener and didn’t really get back to flashing his promising rookie form until late in a sack-less second season. Robertson-Harris was a dynamo in Week 1 with a sack and two tackles for loss vs. the Packers but managed only 1.5 sacks and 1 tackle for loss over the final 15 games. Still young and developing, the pair clearly struggled with all the extra attention generally reserved for Hicks.
So too did Goldman, who’s already logged five seasons and earned a reputation as one of football’s tougher nose guards but only recently turned 26 years old. He maintained his rock-solid play against the run but finished with a career-low 1 sack.
Offseason need (1 lowest, 5 highest): The Bears could probably promote Abdullah Anderson to replace Williams and reserve only a later Day 3 selection to spend here — assuming the versatile Robertson-Harris returns and Nichols picks up where he left off as a 2018 rookie.
Available prospects to watch: There’s free-agent star power at tackle and end, from Chris Jones and Jarran Reed to Arik Armstead and Leonard Williams, but Ryan Pace would be better served spending his limited cap dollars and premium draft capital in the opposite trench or outside on the second level of the defense. Remember, Nichols and RRH were Day 3 and undrafted finds, respectively, and Rodgers has worked wonders wtih all of his dudes from Hicks to Williams.