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Bears 2021 position preview: Defensive line


The following is the sixth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.

The Bears defensive line in 2021 will once again be powered by productive veteran Akiem Hicks and ascending fourth-year pro Bilal Nichols.

A highly respected team leader, Hicks has started all 68 games he's played in five seasons with the Bears, registering 222 tackles, 27.5 sacks, 46 tackles-for-loss, five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Last year the 6-4, 347-pound tackle started 15 games and recorded 49 tackles, 3.5 sacks and seven tackles-for-loss.

"The first thing you see is his size," Bears first-year defensive line coach Chris Rumph said in May. "He's a big bully out there. He's a guy that's like a big brother out there, that once he's on the field with you, you sort of feel protected because big brother has your back. But he's a guy that's going to have to continue to get better, fundamentally, technique-wise.

"He has to understand he has a name out there now, so people are going to target him and offensive coordinators are going to make sure they have a plan to block him and make sure he's covered up. So, he's going to have to understand that, and we're going to have to be strategic in what we do and how we use him."

Nichols helped fill the void last year created by the absence of veteran nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Nichols, a 2018 fifth-round draft pick from Delaware, established career highs in 2020 with 16 starts, 40 tackles, 5.0 sacks and seven tackles-for-loss. The 6-3, 313-pounder also generated his first career interception.

With Bilal Nichols picking off a pass against the Lions, senior writer Larry Mayer ranks the top 10 interceptions by Bears defensive linemen since 2000.

Goldman, meanwhile, did not participate in the Bears' voluntary offseason program and was an unexcused absence at the mandatory full-squad minicamp. But coach Matt Nagy said at the time that he expects the veteran nose tackle to report to training camp later this month.

"I don't think it's in doubt," Nagy said in mid-June. "I really feel confident that he's going to be here … We fully expect him to be there."

Selected by the Bears in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Florida State, Goldman has appeared in 67 games with 63 starts over five seasons. He has compiled 153 tackles, 12.5 sacks and 17 tackles-for-loss. The 6-3, 318-pounder earned Pro Bowl alternate honors in 2019 after registering 29 tackles, one sack and two tackles-for-loss.

After a productive first season with the Bears in 2020, veteran defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. will return after signing a three-year contract.

Edwards originally joined the Bears last Sept. 8, five days before the season opener in Detroit. He appeared in 15 games, all as a reserve, and set career highs with 4.0 sacks and six tackles-for-loss while also producing 17 tackles and seven quarterback hits. He followed with four solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss in the wild card playoff game in New Orleans.

Edwards arrived in Chicago after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Raiders (2015-17), Giants (2018) and Saints (2019), appearing in 59 games with 24 starts and recording 93 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 12 tackles-for-loss, 23 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles.

The Bears bolstered their defensive line in March by signing veteran free agent end Angelo Blackson. The 6-4, 318-pounder has appeared in 85 games with 30 starts over six NFL seasons with the Titans (2015-16), Texans (2017-19) and Cardinals (2020). He has amassed 101 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 11 tackles-for-loss, 17 quarterback hits, five pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Last season Blackson was a key member of Arizona's defense. Playing in all 16 games with nine starts, he equaled career highs with 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks and established personal highs with four tackles-for-loss and eight quarterback hits. He also played a career-high 50 percent of the Cardinals' defensive snaps.

"Angelo fits in as far as the physical traits, the size," Rumph said. "He gives us a little more juice. We've got some big guys that I like to call big grinders up in there, and Angelo, he's a bigger body, but not quite as big. He gives us just a different curveball. We've got those big guys in there throwing fastball, fastball, and then we have a guy like himself and Mario Edwards, guys that are changeups. I think it will be a good mixture for the room."

The Bears followed by spending a seventh-round draft pick on nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, a powerful run stopper who can also push back the pocket. The 6-2, 326-pounder appeared in 47 games in four seasons at BYU, generating 130 tackles, 16.0 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks, 12 pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

Last season Tonga played in 11 games and compiled 36 tackles and 3.5 tackles-for-loss while setting career highs with 3.5 sacks and five pass breakups.

Other defensive linemen who will compete for roster spots in training camp and the preseason include eight-year veteran Mike Pennel Jr.—who was signed by the Bears after participating in the full-squad minicamp on a tryout basis—first-year pro LaCale London, and undrafted rookies Daniel Archibong and Sam Kamara.