Look up any list of Bears needs before free agency, and this one was near the top. Fast-forward to days before the draft in April, and the gaping hole was still there, begging to be filled by Stanford’s Solomon Thomas or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen.
The Bears needed a proven starter at defensive end to team with nose tackle Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks.
They need one still.
They’ll take the field in their season opener Sunday without a single new face at defensive end, either via free agency or the draft. The steady Mitch Unrein, whom the Bears like as a rotation player, remains. But their search for a long-term answer is focused on two second-year players with one start between them: Jonathan Bullard, who could start, and Roy Robertson-Harris.
“Explosive,” Hicks said. “Those two guys have the best get-off on the defensive line. They’re off the ball, they’re snapping and just firing, hitting holes. Two special young players, and I know they’re going to contribute in a special way. There’s a great opportunity.”
The Bears hope they seize it. If not, they’ll find themselves in the same predicament they’re facing at wide receiver. General manager Ryan Pace entered the preseason thin at that position before Cam Meredith tore his anterior cruciate ligament, leaving the Bears with one of the least accomplished receiver groups in the league.
Robertson-Harris will make his NFL debut after sitting out last season, when he suffered heatstroke while preparing for training camp. The Bears switched the UTEP alum from outside linebacker to defensive end in the middle of the season. He began gaining weight, climbing from 269 pounds to 294.
“It’s not like he’s had to work hard to get big,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s strong and athletic in there. He can bend for a tall guy.”
Robertson-Harris had two sacks and blocked a punt en route to becoming the biggest dark horse to make the Bears’ 53-man roster.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said. “It just matters that you can play and do what Coach asks you to do, and stay healthy. That’s all that matters.”
Bullard gained almost 20 pounds this offseason — he was actually too heavy at one point during camp, Fangio said — while retaining the explosiveness that convinced the Bears to draft him in the third round in 2016.
He had two tackles-for-loss in two preseason games before a gluteus injury caused him to miss the final two. Fangio said Bullard matured both physically and mentally after an uneven rookie season that included one healthy scratch.
“I was just a little hesitant. In certain situations, I didn’t know what to do,” the Florida alum said. “This is a completely different defense than I was used to.
“[Now] I just understand everything more. I understand my role, I understand what the guys all around me are doing, I understand the defense better. They just put me in situations to make plays, and I made them.”
Bullard and Robertson-Harris both made those plays frequently enough that the Bears cut Jaye Howard, the former Chiefs stud who was recovering from offseason hip surgery. When the Bears signed Howard in May — a year after he signed a two-year, $12 million deal to stay in Kansas City — they believed he could start, if healthy. But Bullard and Robertson-Harris simply beat him out.
“The emergence of those players, that’s exciting to see,” Pace said. “They’re good, young players. Both of them are explosive. I couldn’t be happier with their development. I think you’ve got to credit [defensive line coach] Jay Rodgers a lot for those two guys, because I think they’re set for big years for us.”
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