Of every position group, barring health, the Chicago Bears' front seven is the unit the team will place most of its' faith into. Range of talent aside (more speed rushers welcome), the Bears clearly possess the most depth on their roster here.
The top-end front seven starters of the Bears could go toe-to-toe with most other defensive units in comparison. From an explosive and powerful nose tackle in Eddie Goldman, and a dynamic, athletic freak in Leonard Floyd, to a mountain of a man in Akiem Hicks, there's a lot of ability looking to be harnessed here.
But for most pass rushes and particularly, defensive lines in general, depth is what will ultimately make or break their success. In that light, Chicago does have some of their clear swing guys already locked into their roles such as Willie Young and Lamarr Houston on the edge (depending on recovery from a torn ACL). That allows for the Bears to come in waves after throwing Floyd and Pernell McPhee out into the fray first.
Yet there's an element missing at five-technique.
Hicks, who tied for second on the Bears in sacks last year with 7, has clearly separated himself as the team's best 3-4 defensive end. He of course, is in line for a new contract as a pending unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season. New addition and former Kansas City Chief, Jaye Howard. is regarded as a similar talent to Hicks in his own rise as a professional, and really bolsters Chicago's defense on the front line even more.
Who on the Bears roster primarily plays in spells after these two, though?
This question will be answered in camp by either last year's third-round pick in Jonathan Bullard or 2016 undrafted free agent, Roy Robertson-Harris. Both will likely make the final 53-man roster but one will get the better brunt of playing time. Two young players looking to prove themselves and offer greater strength to a Bears unit seeking to fill in holes with luxury.
Weight: 290 pounds
Experience: Second season
Weight: 285 pounds
Experience: Rookie (did not appear in 2016)
The easy assumption to make here is that Bullard has the leg up on an unproven Robertson-Harris given the one year of experience under his belt. After all, Robertson-Harris is still an extremely raw player making the transition from outside linebacker to having his hand in the ground at defensive end before he's even played a down in the NFL.
However, Bullard can enjoy no such gaps or comforts because of an underwhelming rookie season in terms of his own contributions. A 2016 season that saw him benched for a period in December and have just 18 tackles and one sack overall stands out negatively. Anytime a player is describing his team's feelings on his play by saying "they want a little more" as Bullard did in reaction to his benching, its not a good sign.
However, none of the past isn't to say that Bullard should have been amazing from the gate in 2016 as a third-round pick. Not every amateur can burst onto the scene and be NFL-ready like Jordan Howard. There's still time for him to become what the Bears no doubt envision he still can be.
Remember, Bullard was described as a first-round talent. His senior season at Florida in 2015 was one of pure dominance with 63 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks. But a frame he's still growing into is probably what held him back in both the draft and his play as a rookie. A prospect with impressive measurables but incredibly raw tools otherwise and it showed with the Bears, clear as day.
Now, with an NFL off-season behind him to refine his gifts, Bullard is surely the front-runner as the third five technique. Though he'll have to earn his playing time with the Bears yet again (if one makes the relatively safe assumption that Howard is the starter next to Hicks), because of Robertson-Harris' presence.
The hype has been slowly building for the 23-year-old physical freak in Robertson-Harris - whose been hard at work in the past several months in preparation for the grind of his first pro experience.
These are typical workout videos you could expect from any NFL player, but the fluidity and movement is certainly notable for a guy as tall as he is at 6-foot-7 who'll be playing as a defensive lineman.
Despite this, no one knows exactly what to expect from the former UTEP standout. Amassing 143 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in four years as a 4-3 defensive end is dramatically different as a pro 3-4 guy with defined contrasting responsibilities in Chicago. That means whereas a 4-3 defensive end is more likened to be able to pin his ears back and go after the passer more consistently, a 3-4 guy will often instead be responsible for two gaps as a run defender depending on the play - a constantly shifting dynamic.
Robertson-Harris has beefed up from 268 pounds to 285 to handle the increased punishment because of it, something he's aware he needed to do in saying "it's just going against stronger guys." He also clearly possesses the frame and range to make the transition to the kind of defensive end the Bears seek. He's a project for Chicago in the mold of the now-departed Cornelius Washington - with hopeful healthier and better results.
All that has happen now is for Robertson-Harris is to put his work together and showcase it on the field, regardless of who stands in his way.
Ultimately, Robertson-Harris could be an underrated weapon lying in the wings. Or Bullard might take his rightful place off of original projections and be one of Chicago's true breakout stars in 2017. A testy battle in the trenches awaits.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.