Gabriel: Bears' D-Line As Good As Any In NFL

October 09, 2018 - 11:29 am
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(670 The Score) Time and again since pulling off a blockbuster trade to acquire edge rusher Khalil Mack on Sept. 1, the Bears have referenced how his presence has benefited the entire unit and raised everyone's level of play.

Among the biggest benefactors of Mack's arrival has been the Bears' defensive line, which is as good as any in the NFL. It's a unit that, among others, has been instrumental in the team's 3-1 start.

The Bears have quality depth up front, using a five-man rotation. That combined with the design of the their defense -- the Bears have used two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs on the majority of snaps -- has allowed everyone to stay fresh. They've only used their base 3-4 defense a minimal amount.

Lately, the Bears' defensive line rotation has been any combination of Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Jonathan Bullard and Bilal Nichols. When they do play three linemen, either Goldman or Nichols is on the nose with the others playing the defensive end spots. Nick Williams has been mostly inactive but was used in the opener.

The Bears' group is really athletic, as Robertson-Harris, Bullard, Nichols and Williams were all timed under 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash when they entered the league. That's nearly unheard of for teams using a base 3-4. That speed and athleticism is what gives the Bears such a strong inside pass rush.

Hicks is the leader of the Bears' forceful line, as he's one of the premier defensive linemen in the league. He had 54 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 2017, when he was robbed of a Pro Bowl berth. He's since picked up where he left off, with 11 tackles and three sacks in the first four games while displaying a consistent ability to disrupt the passing and running game. 

Goldman, 24, is just coming into his own. As a rookie in 2015, he was overweight and didn’t know what it took to be a high-caliber player. He's now in the best condition of his life and understands the commitment and focus it takes to compete at a high level. Goldman used to play in the 330s and 340s but is now listed at 320 pounds. Early in his career, the Bears didn't use him much as a pass rusher, but he produces in that regard now.

Robertson-Harris, 25, is a prime example of what player development is all about. As an undrafted free agent out of UTEP, he was a raw 256-pound 4-3 defensive end with 4.84 speed. He has grown into a 300-pound five-technique and hasn’t lost any speed. It has put him on a path to becoming the Bears' second-best interior pass rusher. He's only beginning to scratch the surface of how good he can be.

Bullard, who turns 25 later in October, was a disappointment as a rookie in 2016 after the Bears selected him in the third round. Like Goldman before him, he didn’t understand what it took to be a pro. He has since matured and is now beginning to play like the Bears envisioned. Few defensive linemen have the initial quickness that Bullard boasts. What he needs to improve is his down-to-down consistency. His flash plays are terrific, but we just don’t see enough of them.

Nichols is still quite raw, but his physical traits may be the best of the group. He's strong, fast and explosive. He simply needs to learn how to play. In the last two games, the 22-year-old Nichols has made some big plays and as he gains experience, he will garner more playing time.

With the 28-year-old Hicks representing the oldest member of the Bears' defensive line, the group will be around for a while with plenty of room to grow. The defensive linemen all have different types of skill sets, which allows defensive coordinator Vic Fangio flexibility in how he uses them and makes it difficult for opponents to prepare. This unit has the potential to be scary good.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.​​