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Bears 2023 position preview: Defensive line

Bears defensive linemen DeMarcus Walker and Zacch Pickens
Bears defensive linemen DeMarcus Walker and Zacch Pickens

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

The Bears addressed their defensive line in both free agency and the draft, adding key pieces to create more depth and competition.

They signed defensive end DeMarcus Walker and defensive tackle Andrew Billings in free agency and then spent Day 2 draft picks on tackles Gervon Dexter Sr. in the second round and Zacch Pickens in the third.

"The No. 1 thing is they love football," said defensive line coach Travis Smith. "You can tell. That's part of the reason Mr. Poles and Mr. Flus (coach Matt Eberflus) got them here because of their personality and their character. When you talk about, 'do they love ball,' they love ball."

Dexter didn't play football at Wales Senior High School in Florida until his final two years because he initially was focused on basketball, playing for the school as well as on a travel team that featured current Toronto Raptors power forward Scottie Barnes.

Dexter was evidently a quick learner; as a senior in 2019, he led the football team to the FHSAA Class 5A regional finals and a 12-1 record and also qualified for the FHSAA Class 2A State Track & Field Championships in the discus.

"The first thing you see is his size," Smith said. "He's a big dude. He takes up a lot of space. But the thing we do like about him, too, is he's young and raw. He hasn't played a lot of football."

Pickens appeared in 47 games with 32 starts over four seasons at South Carolina, recording 131 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks. Last year he was named the Gamecocks' team MVP, defensive MVP and most outstanding senior after producing 42 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks.

At T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C., Pickens was voted South Carolina Gatorade Football Athlete of the Year and the state's Mr. Football as a senior after leading the Yellow Jackets to a 14-1 record and a berth in the 5A state title game.

"Zacch Pickens kind of reminds me of myself when I got drafted," said veteran defensive tackle Justin Jones. "I came in, I was like 312 [pounds], third-round pick coming out of the Carolinas. [He's an] explosive guy, strong hands, still kind of some things you've got to get better at, but he's going to be a good player in this league."

The Bears drafted a third defensive tackle in the seventh round, choosing Travis Bell. The 6-foot, 310-pounder appeared in 44 games over five years at Kennesaw State, generating 11.0 sacks and 24.5 tackles-for-loss. As a graduate student last year, he totaled a career-high 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Bell is the first Kennesaw State player ever to be selected in the NFL Draft.

Dexter, Pickens and Bell will compete at tackle with Jones and free-agent acquisition Andrew Billings. Jones returns for a second season with the Bears. Last year the 6-3, 309-pounder started all 17 games, registering 52 tackles, 12.0 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks and one fumble recovery. He signed with the Bears in 2022 after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Chargers.

Billings arrives after playing in 67 games with 51 starts over five seasons with the Bengals (2017-19), Browns (2021) and Raiders (2022), producing 120 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 17.0 tackles-for-loss.

"Andrew adds a valued veteran presence on our defensive line with proven production, especially against the run," general manager Ryan Poles said in March after signing the 6-1, 311-pounder to a one-year contract. 

Smith described Billings as a "really, really good vet," saying that "he's another nose tackle that's going to play that position and handle the A-gaps, make sure he takes care of the inside runs, but also the runs away from the tight end that he's in charge of."

"He played in a similar system—not the same—back when he was in Cincinnati where he was playing that nose, where he's in charge of making sure that center never reaches him," Smith added. "The techniques and the things we're asking of him are familiar. He played a little bit different system last year in Vegas and Cleveland before that, but now we're getting back to what he did for 3-4 years in Cincinnati."

The Bears also bolstered their defensive end position in free agency by adding Walker. He has appeared in 66 NFL games with 13 starts over six seasons with the Broncos (2017-20), Texans (2021) and Titans (2022), compiling 114 tackles, 24.0 tackles-for-loss and 19.5 sacks.

"DeMarcus is a versatile addition for our defensive front who can impact the game both in the pass rush and against the run," Poles said in March after signing the 6-4, 280-pounder to a three-year contract. 

Last year Walker played in all 17 games with six starts for Tennessee and established career highs with 32 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss and 7.0 sacks. 

"We talk about position flexibility," Smith said. "He's one of those guys, you watch in Tennessee, you watch in Denver, you watch in Houston, he played end and over the guard. He's a physical rusher when you're talking about pass rush. No matter what, whether he's going to go through you, he's going to create momentum and counter it. We need guys who are going to dent the pocket. He's a pocket-denter."

Key returnees at end include four-year veteran Trevis Gipson and second-year pro Dominique Robinson. Last season Gipson played in all 17 games with 10 starts and generated 31 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and 3.0 sacks. 

Smith acknowledged that Gipson is entering a pivotal season, adding: "It's a phenomenal opportunity, and the best thing is I haven't seen him hesitate at all.

"He's been through multiple systems here, playing outside backer/D-end role. He's played just the left end; now he's playing both. Has he changed his demeanor at all? No. Is he competing every day? Absolutely. It doesn't matter what has been thrown at Trevis, what adversity he has faced, every day he's out here trying to get better."

Selected by the Bears in the fifth round of last year's draft out of Miami University (Ohio), Robinson appeared in all 17 games with seven starts as a rookie, producing 30 tackles, 2.0 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks.

Another player to watch in training camp will be defensive end Terrell Lewis. The third-year pro, who was signed to the Bears practice squad last Dec. 20, displayed impressive pass rush moves during mandatory minicamp in mid-June.

Lewis was chosen by the Rams in the third round of the 2020 draft out of Alabama. He appeared in 30 games with seven starts over three seasons with Los Angeles, amassing 40 tackles, 6.0 sacks, one interception and eight tackles-for-loss. Last year he played in 11 games with three starts, totaling 13 tackles, 1.0 sack, one interception and 2.0 tackles-for-loss before being waived Dec. 15.

Other defensive linemen who will compete for playing time and roster spots in training camp are veterans Andrew Brown, Rasheem Green, Jalyn Holmes and Donovan Jeter; and undrafted rookies Jalen Harris and D'Anthony Jones.