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Bears 2020 final roster roundtable: The defense

As the calling card of a franchise, the Bears’ defense is poised for another stellar season. But first, every roster block and key must be slid into their proper places.

Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

If there’s one thing the Bears will seemingly always excel at, it’s keeping their opponents out of the end zone. While, yes, some of the preeminence placed on the Chicago defense is rooted out of consistent failure on the other side of the ball, that should not take away from what remains a shining, star-studded group.

Khalil Mack. Akiem Hicks. Eddie Jackson. Danny Trevathan. Roquan Smith. Kyle Fuller. And that’s not even counting potential rookie stalwarts and other free agents (ahem). Name recognition and a stud or two at every level of the defensive unit. What else could you possibly ask for? Any sane (loose term) coach should salivate at the prospect of coaching this punch purely because of how easy their job would turn out to be. Chuck Pagano, you are one fortunate man.

But for as sure-handed and steady as the Bears’ defense stands, they do not enter the 2020 season without some roster questions to answer. If only it were so simple. There’s a massive gap on the front line with the absence of Eddie Goldman. Two defensive backs are also seeking a full-time partner. Chicago’s team calling card purports to be great. But they need trump cards prepared for these situations on a defense that will potentially have to carry more weight than usual.

What else is new?

The Windy City Gridiron staff makes their final calls for the modern defensive Monsters of the Midway for the 2020 season.

Cincinnati Bengals v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

1. As one of the better professional Husky Men around, the Bears have sizable shoes to fill in with Eddie Goldman’s decision to opt out due to COVID-19. (They’re size 14, I believe, to be exact. He’s a large human being. But you know that.) How do you think Chicago’s defensive decision makers account for the loss of one of their featured contributors? How does Chicago’s defensive trench situation look by mid-September?

Robert Zeglinski: Thanks to a creative defense, this looks like a dunk to me. I don’t want to minimize Goldman’s importance to the Bears’ defensive integrity. He is adept at his job, that being run-stuffing, and is summarily compensated well for the space he eats. But I don’t think it’s controversial to think Chicago finds a way to live without a player that typically only plays half the snaps of every season. Even without Goldman in the fold, John Jenkins, Bilal Nichols, and Roy Robertson-Harris (in pass rush situations) is still a formidable interior defensive line rotation. It’s a trio that will make certain the Bears won’t miss Goldman much for most of the year. (That is, until, say, the Packers run for 200 yards up the gut.)

Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.: Jenkins will get reps as the nose, but I think we’ll see the Bears spend even less time in their 30 front base defense this year than ever before. That’s partly because the NFL is so pass happy, but also partly because the Bears will play more 40-front looks with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn off the edge, while Akiem Hicks, Nichols, and Robertson-Harris man the defensive tackle spots. But back to Jenkins. While he isn’t as versatile as Goldman, he is a decent nose tackle that can eat up space.

Jacob Infante: The absence of Goldman is a sizable loss for the Bears’ defense. That said, I don’t think it’s one that will cripple the unit. I expect Chicago to run heavily out of a nickel formation, utilizing Hicks and either Nichols or Robertson-Harris as the interior rushing defenders on passing downs. As far as a pure nose tackle goes, I expect Nichols and Jenkins to rotate as the 0-technique.

Jack R. Salo: Reports from camp are that Nichols has filled in at nose tackle in practices. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears regularly align in a 2-4-5 nickel defense, with Hicks and Nichols as the only true defensive linemen.

WhiskeyRanger: I won’t lie. Losing Eddie Goldman is going to sting. Even with the Bears shifting more to the nickel, and therefore utilizing a true 0-tech nose tackle less, Goldman was still a magnificent anchor on that front. Nichols seems to be stepping into the role in his absence, and by all accounts is performing well. With that, my expectation is to have competent play from the position, and probably an even higher focus on nickel sets. Inside blitzes will make up for the loss of one of the NFL’s premier 0-tech nose tackles.

Erik Duerrwaechter: When possible, the Bears are going to avoid lining up in the 3-4 front, instead opting to use such a front exclusively in short yardage situations. Otherwise, we will see plenty of Nichols at nose. Jenkins is also available as the heftiest bull in the barn in case size is needed. The rotation between defensive linemen will be more noticeable this year as well, seeing the platoon concept utilized for players not named Hicks. Where the Bears will lose a significant chunk of power with Goldman out, they will make up for in versatility.

Ken Mitchell: Next Man Up. Little known fact about John Jenkins: He had nearly an identical number of snaps last year as Goldman. And (not that I think it’s worth a tinker’s damn, but some people do) Pro Football Focus had Jenkins rated slightly higher than Goldman. Having said that, I see Jenkins as more of a rotational guy behind Nichols and Robertson-Harris. Goldman’s a good player and a big loss, but there’s already solid depth at that position.

Robert Schmitz: While I know the Bears have stated that they want to play Nichols at nose tackle in place of Goldman, I think the Bears will look to mix up their DDL responsibilities on a play-to-play basis. When running a 3-4 defense, most defensive linemen commonly “two gap”, meaning they’re responsible for both the gap to their right and the gap to their left when facing down a run pay. This is, as you would expect, much harder than playing “one gap” defense and usually requires a player with the size and strength of Goldman or Hicks. Since Nichols and Robertson-Harris are ~30 pounds lighter than each of the Bears’ big men, I expect creative “two-and-one gap” fronts to help keep the Bears successful against early-down runs.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

2. On the boundary, the Bears are waiting to anoint the heir apparent to the departed royal Prince Amukamara. For now, the main competition, The Viper and The Moun—er ... the Viper is between hopeful late-bloomer Kevin Toliver, and polished rookie Jaylon Johnson, who has come on hard of late after being eased into camp due to injury. Who starts opposite Kyle Fuller to combat an explosive Detroit supporting cast at Ford Field on September 13? Is that same young man the starter for most of the regular season?

Robert Zeglinski: It’ll be Kevin Toliver, for at least a few snaps. I’d be surprised if Matt Nagy and Chuck Pagano throw Jaylon Johnson to the wolves against the Lions. But Toliver will be on a short leash in the event of any egregious mistake. After the Bears leave Michigan, all bets are off. The smart play would be to let a player of Johnson’s pedigree learn on the fly. I suspect a bevy of consistent flashes alone has him make certain the Bears keep him in as a starter.

Lester Wiltfong Jr.: I figured the Bears would roll with Toliver to start the season. But after hearing the coaches and beat writers talk up the position, I think the Bears will start the rookie from Day 1. He’ll likely struggle some, and we may see him get a few series off from time to time, but Johnson will get the bulk of the CB2 snaps this year.

Jacob Infante: In the long run, Johnson should and likely will be the starter as the boundary cornerback opposite Fuller. However, Nagy has a tendency to ease rookies early on in the season by starting a veteran and gradually increasing the rookie’s snaps week by week. (See Roquan Smith, Anthony Miller, James Daniels, David Montgomery). I think Toliver will start come Week 1 and hold the fort down for two or three weeks before the full-time switch is made.

Jack R. Salo: In 2019, the Bears were lined up in a nickel defense 62 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders. I expect that number to again stay above 50 percent this year. I’m not worried about the person whose name and face pops up when FOX shows the defensive starters on September 13th. However, the face I expect to see opposite Fuller is the veteran, Buster Skrine. Midway through the season I expect Jaylon Johnson’s face to appear more, but he won’t eat into Skrine’s playing time.

WhiskeyRanger: I’ve still got my money on Toliver starting the season opposite Kyle Fuller (who by all accounts is having a great offseason!). He’s been solid at the position in the past, and any time you have the opportunity to not throw a rookie into a starting role right away, it’s a good thing. Of course, whether Toliver is still starting come the end of the season, is another question. Given what we’ve heard so far about Johnson, I’d say he takes over the starting role around mid-season.

Erik Duerrwaechter: Nagy dropped a less-than-subtle hint when he said, “(Jaylon) is ready.” That makes me think he’s already won the job at cornerback. The Bears are betting that the pass rush up front will simply be too great for the Lions’ offense to handle, making life for their prized rookie corner that much simpler. Johnson is the starter at corner in Week 1. And, he’s going to be a starter at corner for a long time.

Ken Mitchell: I think Toliver starts the season, while Johnson gets eased in. I also think there’s plenty of work to go around for all four of the Bears’ top corners. I’d like to see Skrine stay in as the nickel. He did a nice job there last year and hopefully we see a repeat performance. Nickel is also a bit harder for younger players to pick up quickly, making Skrine even more important given how the Bears use this defense.

Robert Schmitz: I wish I knew a more about Johnson’s injury that limited him in camp. But after hearing he’s played well in his short stint (including a picked-off pass or two), I think I’ll go with Johnson as the Week 1 starter. He’s an instinctive player that needs experience. There’s no better time to start gaining experience than against a tough receiving duo in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. If Johnson does start, I think he’ll finish the season, too. Toliver sticks around as good depth in case Fuller or Johnson miss any time.

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

3. Eddie Jackson has already positioned himself as one of the NFL’s premier ball-hawk safeties. But as with Chicago’s cornerback dynamic, there’s a vacant safety slot opposite the former Crimson Tide standout. When Matthew Stafford is slinging bombs downfield in a week, who is working in tandem with Jackson to make certain those bombs don’t land direct hits, Battleship style? And is the wily veteran you select the starter for most of the regular season?

Robert Zeglinski: Deon Bush is a reliable veteran, but he has limits. Tashaun Gipson is no star, but he can make more impact plays, and especially against the pass. There’s the difference. The Bears are in such a position where whomever features next to Jackson for the rest of his career automatically has one of the easiest jobs in pro football. Gipson, the soon-to-be-full-time-starter, can take some of the burden from his partner.

Lester Wiltfong Jr.: I’ve been assuming Gipson would be the starter since the day he was signed, and I’m sticking with that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they went with Bush. He’s experienced in the system, and the defensive coaches have always talked him up, even going back to the Vic Fangio days. I would love to see Bush take a step up in play and earn more playing time this year. But, on paper at least, Gipson has more in-game experience and all-around game over Bush.

Jacob Infante: It should be Gipson. He played a lot better than many give him credit for in his lone campaign with the Texans last year. He’s proven that, even at 30-years-old, he’s a quality coverage safety. Bush is a serviceable player, but he doesn’t have the experience or, quite frankly, the upside at strong safety that Gipson does. I get that the Bears want to give their man a fair shot, but it shouldn’t be much of a contest.

Jack R. Salo: I never like to use the terminology “win-now”, because it’s rare to see a team tank before the season starts (looking at you, Jacksonville). However, the Bears spent money on veteran leadership this past off-season in a way I didn’t expect. Nick Foles, Ted Ginn, Robert Quinn, Jimmy Graham? You get the picture. They’re looking for players with starting experience. Gipson has started 104 regular-season games in his career. If healthy, that will be 120 by the time you get your next New Year’s kiss.

WhiskeyRanger: To me, Gipson is the most likely to get the nod opposite Eddie, and I’d bet he keeps that spot through the season. That said, with a heavy focus on nickel sets, all the defensive backs are going to get their run. They may even shift positions depending on any one play.

Erik Duerrwaechter: I have Tashaun Gipson as the starting safety to be paired with Jackson. As I alluded to earlier, provided we see the Bears’ pass rush whack Stafford like a pinata, the two longest-ranged safeties on the roster will have plenty of chances to make plays deep in the secondary. Gipson will then remain the starter as long as he remains healthy and competent.

Ken Mitchell: I again think this is an area where both competitors will see a lot of work. But I’m thinking Bush has the edge right now to be the opening day starter. By all accounts he’s had a great camp. Then again, he’s only faced Trubisky, Foles and Tyler Bray. So, there’s that.

Robert Schmitz: Before talking to Zack Pearson on my latest podcast, I absolutely would’ve told you that Gipson was the unquestioned starter. But now I’m not so sure. It actually sounds as if Bush has come out ahead of Gipson (which isn’t that shocking if we go back to his fabulous 2019 preseason) and very well could start in 2020. I’ll pick Bush here off of Zack’s information alone. If Bush does start, I think he’ll finish the season pending injury. Gipson makes for good depth as a third safety.

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4. While his pocket book has more heft now, I’m not sure that former Bear Nick Kwiatkoski is enjoying his time with Jon Gruden waxing poetically about spider passing concepts ... man. His departure means Chicago has a moderate-sized hole at inside linebacker after Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. Who are you comfortable anointing as their understudy, the No. 3 inside linebacker? Keep in mind that whomever you run with will likely have to contribute heavily on special teams.

Robert Zeglinski: Trevathan and Smith’s health in recent years are not to be trifled with. Whoever winds up being the Bears’ third inside linebacker should prepare to play at least a quarter or two of a game. But, deep down, I’m not perturbed enough with this situation to say I’m uncomfortable outright with anyone Chicago already has for depth. I don’t think the Bears will be playing a traditional defensive look where every inside guy is always on the field often enough to make any understudy relevant. This is essentially my refusal to elevate a player. It happens.

Lester Wiltfong Jr.: Even though there hasn’t been much word from camp about any of the back-up inside linebackers, I’m leaning toward Joel Iyiegbuniwe as the first man off the bench. There’s a chance the Bears sign a veteran in case of injury. But if they were truly unhappy with the reserves at this position they would have made a move already.

Jacob Infante: Truth be told, I’m not comfortable deeming anybody the Bears have on their bench as the “next man up” at inside linebacker. Ideally, the team would go after Alec Ogletree or another veteran to fill in that role. If the Bears don’t add outside talent at the position, I’ll go Josh Woods. He has athletic upside, value in coverage, and has been adding muscle to his frame to adjust from safety to linebacker since joining the NFL two seasons ago.

Jack R. Salo: The depth at inside linebacker is concerning. If 2019 is any indication, the Bears shouldn’t hold their breath on Trevathan and Smith staying healthy for 16 games. If one of them goes down long-term, I think the Bears will be looking to sign a free agent. Iyiegbuniwe should be the first off the bench, for now.

WhiskeyRanger: In terms of who I feel most comfortable with as the No. 3, it’s Iyiegbuniwe. However, I think the first off the bench will be situation dependent, rather than a hard and fast No. 3.

Erik Duerrwaechter: The Bears are rolling the dice on defense if they keep their inside linebacker depth chart as is on game day. The recent try-outs of veterans suggest they plan on adding more experience soon. I’ve picked Woods in a similar discussion earlier this summer. I’ll stay with that pick, as he offers the most upside out of the known candidates to backup Smith and Trevathan. With that said, do not rule out Khalil Mack’s younger brother, Ledarius, as a potential wild card.

Ken Mitchell: I think the No. 3 inside linebacker isn’t as big of an issue as a lot of people are making out of it, because the Bears pull one of them off the field so often that there’s often only one ILB in anyway. Both Smith and Trevathan can be that one guy. I think if one of them is out for a while for whatever reason, we’ll see more of the one backer defensive sets than they do with both healthy.

Robert Schmitz: Honestly, no one. When Ogletree worked out with the Bears I thought they’d finally found a quality option. When he didn’t sign afterwards I was left confused. Woods feels similar to John Timu to me (a heady linebacker that’s limited as an athlete), while Iyiegbuniwe is the exact opposite (a special athlete that can’t seem to figure out where he needs to be). The tiebreaker would go to Woods, but I don’t feel great about it. NFL teams tend to take the sure thing in football players when it comes to depth.

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