The big puzzle piece for the defensive line of the Chicago Bears in 2021 is nose tackle Eddie Goldman. He opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, and while it’s assumed he’ll be back manning the middle of the Bears defense next season, there’s been no official announcement.
Among the players that did play on the defensive line a year ago, there are five free agents and one important cog heading into the final year of his contract.
Here’s how the Bears shape up along the defensive line right now.
Eddie Goldman - Signed through 2023 - I don’t think a lot of people (fans and media alike) realized how big an impact missing Goldman was going to be in 2020. His 2019 stat line wasn’t sexy with only 29 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB hits, and 2 tackles for loss, but Goldman doesn’t play a flashy game. He’s clogs up running lanes, he takes on blockers, he absorbs double teams, and he helps keep offensive linemen from getting up to the second level.
In 2019 the Bears allowed 1,632 rushing yards and they gave up 3.9 yards per carry, but last year without Goldman those numbers jumped to 1,814 and 4.1. That’s not all because of Goldman’s absence, but with him not in there on some early downs, teams were able to gain positive yards and get into third and manageable situations. Slowing a rushing attack on first and second downs gives defenses third and longs to get after the quarterback.
Akiem Hicks - Signed through 2021 - There’s a lot of fan chatter about the Bears possibly cutting hicks to save $10.5 million in cap space, but I don’t see that happening. I think it’s more likely the Bears sign him to an extension to lower this year’s cap hit, but the Bears will need to consider he’ll be 32-years old in November and not stretch things out too far into the future.
While the cap is expected to drop in 2021, most experts see it going up in 2022 due to the new TV deals that are coming, and if fans are back in stadiums the cap could jump even higher than it was in 2020.
Bilal Nichols - Signed through 2021 - Nichols had a career year with 40 tackles, 5 sacks, 13 QB hits, and 7 tackles for loss, but I think he’s due for an even better 2021 if Goldman returns. Nichols manned the nose last year, but that’s not his best spot. He needs to be a defensive end in the Bears 3-4 defense and heading into his contract year he’ll be set to cash in
Brent Urban - Free agent - Urban has played a solid couple of years in Chicago, and I think he’s a good bet to return in 2021 as a reserve.
John Jenkins - Free agent - Jenkins filled in as a reserve nose tackle, and I can see the Bears bringing him back for another year. Both he and Urban are lost cost, veteran depth players that the Bears can trust in their system.
Roy Robertson-Harris - Free agent - With the Bears having needs at other positions, and with so much money already being allocated to the defense, I think are going to let RRH walk. His wife shared a post on Instagram that made it sound like she and her husband were saying goodbye to Chicago, but that post has since been deleted.
My guess is another team will swoop in and sign him to more than what the Bears can realistically afford, but if that happens the Bears could be in line for a comp pick depending on how their free agency ends up. I see him as a fit with the Chargers where a couple of his former Chicago coaches now work.
Daniel McCullers - Free agent - The Bears signed McCullers when they suffered some injuries, and he ended up playing in a few games towards the end of the season. I don’t see him in their future plans, although a veteran minimum deal to compete in camp isn’t out of the question.
Mario Edwards Jr. - Free agent - The Saints cut him before the season started and in the 15 games he played for the Bears he set a career high with 4 sacks. I could see him returning as a reserve, but I also think he showed enough for another team to offer a bit more than the Bears are willing to pay.
LaCale London - Signed through 2021 - Last year’s UDFA came into camp with thoughts of moving to outside linebacker, but at some point during the year he went back to his more natural defensive line position. With no preseason games or open training camp a year ago, there’s really no way to gauge his prospects at developing. I’d say at the very least he’ll have a good shot at the practice squad next year.
2021 OUTLOOK - Goldman returning to form is the key, because he’ll take some run stuffing pressure off of Hicks, and Nichols will play where he’s best suited. I can’t see the Bears paying anyone significant in free agency, but I think getting a guy in the draft is a definite possibility.
Depending on how their board falls, I wouldn't be shocked to see them address the position on day two, but I think waiting for rounds four through seven makes more sense.
Nichols was a fifth round pick and Robertson-Harris an undrafted free agent, so the Bears will likely need to hit on another day three/UDFA find to bolster their depth. Florida’s Tedarrell Slaton (6’5”, 340) could be a developmental nose tackle and for a five technique defensive end they could look to Isaiahh Loudermilk (6’7”, 293) from Wisconsin.
What do you guys think the Bears do on the d-line in 2021?