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NFL Draft position preview: Bears looking for depth on defensive line

With the return of NT Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks surviving the salary-cap purge, the Bears are set for starters. But the need for rotational depth makes defensive linemen a constant priority.

North Carolina State defensive tackle Alim McNeill (29) had 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in his college career.
North Carolina State defensive tackle Alim McNeill (29) had 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in his college career.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Part 8 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

Eddie Goldman’s return after opting out of the 2020 season because of concerns over the coronavirus figured to be an automatic boost for a Bears defensive line that missed the Pro Bowl alternate nose tackle. But the uncertain status of defensive end Akiem Hicks threatened to cancel out that upgrade.

Hicks was a potential casualty that general manager Ryan Pace faced in the offseason after the NFL’s salary cap dropped from $198.2 million to $182.5 million — instead of rising into the $210 million range as anticipated — because of revenue losses during the pandemic season. But when the Bears released safety Kyle Fuller, it in effect spared Hicks.

That leaves the Bears’ anticipated starting defensive line not only intact, but potentially much better than in 2020. Goldman’s return should make it tougher for opponents to focus on stopping Hicks, who had a good-but-not-great season with Goldman missing. And Bilal Nichols continued to develop in his third NFL season, with a career-high five sacks as a fill-in starter for Goldman. Presuming that Hicks is as effective at 32 as he was in 2018 and 2019, the Bears’ defensive line is a pretty good starting point for new defensive coordinator Sean Desai.

But there’s a fairly big X-factor in that scenario — how much will the Bears miss defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, who left to join Brandon Staley’s staff with the Chargers?

Rodgers was credited for the success of his position group as much as any position coach on the Bears’ staff since Vic Fangio became the defensive coordinator in 2015. Virtually every player on the defensive line maxed out or performed at a high level in Rodgers’ six seasons as the line coach. And not only Hicks and Goldman, but several complementary pieces — Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Williams, Brent Urban and Mario Williams.

Robertson-Harris and Urban both left via free agency — Robertson-Harris signed with the Jaguars (three years, $28.6 million). Urban signed with the Cowboys (1 year, $1.75 million).

As strong as the Bears’ starters have been, rotational depth has played a key part in their success under Rodgers, so they have some holes to fill. They signed Angelo Blackson, who started nine games at nose tackle with the Cardinals last season. And Edwards is back, though he is suspended for the first two games of the 2021 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. LaCale London, a 2020 undrafted free agent from Western Illinois who was on the practice squad, also returns.

The Bears likely are looking to shore up their depth on the defensive line and they’ve done a good job of that in recent years. But with Rodgers gone, new line coach Chris Rumph has the responsibility of developing that depth. Rumph has just one season of NFL experience — as the outside linebackers coach with the Texans last season. Before that he was a defensive coach at the college level for 18 seasons, including Clemson from 2006-10 and Alabama from 2011-13 with two national-championship seasons. He has a lot to work with but a lot to prove.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. The Bears are solid with Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Bilal Nichols, but Roy Robertson-Harris in particular is a big loss. The Bears missed him after he suffered a shoulder injury and missed the last seven games of the season. And Pace knows the importance of depth at that position.

On the roster: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards, Jr., Angelo Blackson, LaCale London.

The five best prospects: Alabama’s Christian Barmore, Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike, Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon, USC’s Marlon Tuipulotu and Florida State’s Marvin Wilson.

Keep an eye on: North Carolina State’s Alim McNeill. A heavily recruited player out of high school who had offers from Alabama and Clemson but signed with the Wolfpack, the 6-2, 317-pound McNeill has intriguing athleticism and versatility — he was a high school linebacker but played on the nose at N.C. State; also planned to play baseball in college but never did. Hard not to like a guy who can shed and pursue the football like McNeill can.

Close to home: Evanston’s Naquan Jones was a four-star recruit who turned down Ohio State to sign with Michigan State, but had modest success as a rotational player before flashing as a redshirt senior in 2020 under Mel Tucker with five tackles-for-loss in seven games (four starts). The 6-3, 313-pound Jones is projected as a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent, but his flashes of athleticism for his size will earn him a chance to make an NFL team and realize the potential many saw in him when he arrived at Michigan State.