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Is Eddie Goldman opt-out a sign of things to come for Bears?

The story is far from over. Operating without a “bubble” has already proven problematic in baseball. The NFL doesn’t figure to be immune from a similar impact.

Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman (91) was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2019.
Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman (91) was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2019.
Amr Alfiky/AP

Who’s next?

Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the 2020 season Tuesday because of health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a major blow to the Bears’ defense, but not a lethal one if it’s the only one.

And therein lies the bigger issue — will Goldman be the only one?

We’ll see about that. The Goldman news broke after Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower became the most high-profile NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season — and the ninth player overall at the time. Goldman was part of an early wave. According to NFL.com, 25 players have opted out, including Vikings defensive tackle Michael Pierce, Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and six Patriots players. So stay tuned.

Even if Goldman is the only Bear to decide before training camp that he isn’t playing this season, the story is far from over. Operating without a “bubble” has already proven problematic in baseball, and the NFL doesn’t figure to be immune from a similar impact. The Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak this week obviously has heightened the concerns of NFL players. The opt-out rush is on.

Then there’s the injury factor. After an offseason with no on-field work, teams are starting abbreviated training camps with a needed “ramp-up” to actual practices — and they won’t be playing preseason games. That means injuries are more likely if the NFL ever begins playing full-speed regular-season games. NFL rosters are fluid throughout the season in the best of times. In the worst of times, there’s no telling what the landscape will look like once games are being played. That’s if we get there in the first place.

As for Goldman, the Bears will feel his absence, even with depth and versatility being strengths of the defensive line. He just has size, strength, quickness and an instinct for the position that are impossible for another player to replicate.

At 26, he has been an impact player in all five seasons with the Bears. He has yet to make the Pro Bowl because of low sack totals, although he was an alternate in 2019. But his impact in the run game is evident to the naked eye — a rarity for a run-stopping nose tackle.

“I think he is a premier nose tackle in the NFL,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said last month. “I don’t think there’s as many players that are as good as him at the position he does. There’s a big difference [between] when he’s not in the game and when he is in the game. I think that data would probably show you the same thing.”

Indeed it does. When Goldman missed the season finale against the Vikings because of a concussion, the Bears allowed 174 rushing yards on 26 carries (6.7 average). Against the Vikings with Goldman in Week 4, they allowed 40 rushing yards on 16 carries (2.5 average).

Even if that’s a small sample size, the Bears have been better in general against the run with Goldman. When he missed 10 games because of injuries in 2016, the Bears ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing defense. Over the last three seasons, he missed just three games, and the Bears ranked 11th (2017), first (2018) and ninth (2019).

“We can’t play good run defense without him playing good,” then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Goldman in 2018.

Even on a top-10 defense, the impact of Goldman’s absence bears watching. Last year, Akiem Hicks’ injury took a lot of bite out of the defense. Goldman isn’t quite Hicks, but relative to the position he plays, he’s not just one guy out of 11.

John Jenkins is a capable defensive tackle. Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris and Hicks are versatile players. The Bears can fill the hole. But will it be the only one?