Change defines everything about the Bears’ offense, but the lack of it stands out on defense. It’s all about continuity because every primary starter and every defensive coach, including coordinator Vic Fangio, is back for 2018.
‘‘Honestly, I think that’s how [the front office] approached it,’’ defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. ‘‘I would say our defense has a good foundation. [It’s] just keep building on that and getting better. Top 10 last year, looking for top five.’’
To be a top-five defense, though, some change is needed. The unit is still short on true difference-makers, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary.
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North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb is unlikely to be available for the Bears with the No. 8 pick. But general manager Ryan Pace still is expected to have three players who are considered the best at their positions to choose from.
Here’s a look at those three difference-makers:
Georgia LB Roquan Smith
Why the Bears need him: Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski have struggled to stay healthy in the last two seasons, and the 49ers’ defense under Fangio was at its best when All-Pro Patrick Willis was in the middle of it. Trevathan and Kwiatkoski form a solid tandem, but Willis’ production, athleticism and tone-setting demeanor significantly changed the 49ers’ defense. Smith (6-1, 236 pounds) has been compared to Willis (6-1, 240) in stature and as a player.
What they’re saying: ‘‘Roquan Smith is the truth, man. The kid’s a player in every sense of the word, and he should be a Pro Bowler very quickly. Very quickly. He is lightning off the spot, meaning his eyes are where they need to be. His key and diagnosis is exceptional. Very rarely does he take bad paths to the football. He takes on people hat-in-hand, meaning [that] when he’s taking on offensive linemen, you see their heads snap back. He can run. When he gets there, he gets there with bad intentions. He can cover.’’ — Louis Riddick, ESPN analyst
Why not Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds? Instincts. Smith has them. Edmunds is a freakish athlete at 6-5 and 253 pounds, but the scouting world sees uncertainty and hesitation in his play. As Riddick said during a recent conference call, Edmunds looks ‘‘unsure’’ at times. Edmunds will turn 20 in May, which makes him more intriguing, but Smith just turned 21 on April 8.
Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Why the Bears need him: Protecting the middle of the field is a concern for all defenses because of modern tight ends and pass-catching running backs. Fitzpatrick was at his best when he handled Alabama’s ‘‘star’’ role, a combination of nickel back, linebacker and blitzing pass rusher. But he also has experience at cornerback and safety. In 2017, Fitzpatrick joined Raiders/Packers Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and Cardinals All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson as the third player in NCAA history to win the Chuck Bednarik (defensive player of the year) and Jim Thorpe (best defensive back) awards in the same season.
What they’re saying: ‘‘The key to Minkah Fitzpatrick is, what is he? He could play all six defensive-back positions: both corners, both safeties, nickel and dime linebacker. He’s the only guy I can say that about. Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve had a couple of coaches say to me: ‘Hey, is he a difference-maker? Is he a nickel? Where’s his ball production?’ He had six picks two years ago but only had one this year. But I look at [his versatility] as a positive.’’ — Mike Mayock, NFL Network draft analyst
Why not Florida State’s Derwin James? Production. It’s where Fitzpatrick distinguishes himself. James (6-2, 215 pounds) is a larger version of Fitzpatrick (6-1, 201 pounds). He can line up and excel in various roles, too. But Fitzpatrick has nine interceptions — including an Alabama-record four pick-sixes — 26 pass breakups, 16 tackles for loss, 4½ sacks and two forced fumbles on his college résumé. A knee injury sidelined James in 2016. He has three interceptions in 27 career games. His only pick-six came against Delaware State last season.
Ohio State CB Denzel Ward
Why the Bears need him: Cornerback still is a premium position in a pass-happy league. The Bears signed Prince Amukamara to a three-year, $27 million contract, but he hasn’t had an interception since the 2015 season. As a team, the Bears have had eight interceptions in each of the last three seasons. In other words, they’ve ranked near the bottom of the league for too long.
What they’re saying: ‘‘A 4.32 40-yard dash. An explosive athlete. He’s physical. I think he’s a plug-and-play starter, even though he’s only a one-year starter at Ohio State. He was playing behind [2017 first-round picks] Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and obviously rotating in with those guys and getting playing time. Then this year . . . I thought he was the best man-to-man corner in the nation. And he’ll get after you, too. He’s just not a finesse corner; he’s a player who will support the run.’’ — Todd McShay, ESPN draft analyst
Why not Iowa’s Josh Jackson? Speed and athleticism. It matters at the next level. Jackson (6-1) is taller than Ward (5-10). He also had eight interceptions last season to Ward’s two. But teams are concerned about Jackson’s long speed. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds. Ward’s closing speed, meanwhile, stands out. Both are considered one-year college starters, but Ward was Ohio State’s nickel back in 2016. He broke up a combined 24 passes in the last two seasons for the Buckeyes.