Draft analysis: Do Bears need D-lineman to team with Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman?

Part 6 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

For all of Ryan Pace’s hits — and misses — in his first three seasons as the Bears’ general manager, no area has fared better than the defensive line.

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Defensive end Akiem Hicks, signed in 2016, then given a lucrative extension on the eve of last season’s opener, has been Pace’s best get in free agency.

Defensive lineman Taven Bryan works a defensive drill during Florida's Pro Day last month. (AP)

Short of running back Jordan Howard — whom Pace stole with a fifth-round pick — perhaps none of his draft selections has been more consistently productive than nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who went No. 39 overall in 2015.

If Pace is able to sign Goldman to a contract extension before the final year of his rookie deal — the Bears are trying — he could have two stellar talents locked up for the next four years, when Hicks’ deal expires.

The Bears, of course, have three starting defensive-line positions.

Their interest in drafting someone to develop alongside Hicks and Goldman depends on how vital they view that third spot to be. The Bears typically rotate defensive linemen, lessening the need for an every-down end opposite Hicks, who played about 85 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year. In nickel and dime packages, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio often replaces an end with a linebacker in hopes of creating pass-rush mismatches.

The Bears never settled on an end to start alongside Hicks last year. Jonathan Bullard, whom Pace drafted in the third round in 2016, played 40 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps, veteran Mitch Unrein 37 percent and 2016 undrafted free agent Roy Robertson-Harris 20 percent. At the end of the season, Pace singled out Bullard and Robertson-Harris as players who made significant leaps.

Perhaps as a result, the Bears didn’t add anyone to replace Unrein when he signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal with the Buccaneers last month.

If the Bears dig for defensive-line help next week, it figures to come in the later rounds. With no third-round pick this year because of the Mitch Trubisky trade, they could look for a defensive lineman in Round 4, where they hold their own pick and that of the Cardinals.

Washington’s Vita Vea, the best defensive lineman in the draft, figures to be available when the Bears draft eighth overall, but the team has different priorities — an outside linebacker, a guard or a defensive back.

At 6-4, 347 pounds, Vea has drawn comparisons to five-time Pro Bowl player Haloti Ngata — although the former has the athleticism to play end in a 3-4 scheme. Vea, whose 41 bench-press reps (225 pounds) ranked second among all NFL Scouting Combine participants, was also nimble enough to make a tackle on punt coverage in the Fiesta Bowl.

“He reminds me so much of Haloti,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “You play him up and down the line of scrimmage; they move him all over the place. He’s got a nasty move as a pass rusher. You can see that physical power.”

The Bears’ power source, though, figures to come later in the draft.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Grading the Bears’ need: 

Medium. End Akiem Hicks and nose tackle Eddie Goldman are among the most formidable duos of any 3-4 scheme, and they could stay together for years if the Bears succeed in re-signing Goldman before the final year of his rookie contract. They could use another player to push Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard, who seem primed for a time-share at the other end position, and to provide injury insurance.

On the roster: Akiem Hicks ($12 million average annual value), Eddie Goldman ($1.42 million), Jonathan Bullard, ($853,380) John Jenkins ($880,000), Roy Robertson-Harris ($542,333) and Rashaad Coward ($510,000).

Top five draft prospects

  1. Vita Vea, Washington: The 6-4, 347-pound mountain played running back in high school.
  2. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama: In the last two years, the Crimson Tide have had four defensive linemen taken in the first two rounds. He’ll be better than any of them.
  3. Maurice Hurst, Michigan: Doctors at the NFL Scouting Combine discovered a heart condition, but Hurst reportedly hasn’t been asked back for a medical recheck. That’s a good sign.
  4. Taven Bryan, Florida: He’s skilled but only had 5½ sacks in three years.
  5. Harrison Phillips, Stanford: The only player with more bench-press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine than Vea. Phillips posted 42 to Vea’s 41.

I’m intrigued by …

What general manager Ryan Pace would do if Bryan is available when the Bears pick in the second round. Pace has bigger needs, but could he pass on a player many consider a first-round talent?