The following is the sixth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.
The Bears will head to Bourbonnais next week once again counting on veteran defensive end Akiem Hicks to be one of their most productive and dependable players this season.
After spending his first four NFL seasons with the Saints and Patriots, Hicks has blossomed with the Bears while being coached by veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio the last two years. The 6-5, 332-pounder established a career high with seven sacks in 2016 and eclipsed that mark with 8.5 in 2017.
"I think just putting me in the right positions to be successful [is] what I'd attribute my play to over the past couple years," Hicks said. "Vic has a great idea of what I'm good at and what I'm bad at, so he's not going to put me out there to sit and go contain. Coming from a situation where I was being cast as a 4-3 defensive end, I think he just knows how to use me and my strengths better."
Hicks was selected by the Saints in the third round of the 2012 draft when Bears general manager Ryan Pace worked in New Orleans' personnel department. Hicks was traded to the Patriots early in the 2015 season after the Saints had switched to a 4-3 defense.
Bleacher Report ranked Hicks as the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL for the 2017 season. He led the Bears with 8.5 sacks, 15 tackles-for-loss and 20 quarterback hits while also recording 54 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
"Akiem Hicks had a breakout season in 2016, but there's a good chance you didn't know his name until he signed a four-year extension with the Chicago Bears in September," wrote scout Justis Mosqueda. "His response to his first blockbuster contract? An 8.5-sack season, an elite year for an interior defensive lineman. According to Pro Football Reference, Hicks recorded 19.5 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2017. … Expect Hicks to become a household name soon."
Third-year pro Jonathan Bullard is expected to replace departed free agent Mitch Unrein at the other defensive end position. Last year the 2016 third-round pick registered 25 tackles, one sack, two tackles-for-loss and one forced fumble while appearing in all 16 games with three starts.
Asked about Bullard earning a starting job, Hicks said: "There's no question in my mind that he has the talent. One thing that he's picked up as of late and last year as well is just his work ethic. I think that he now knows what it means to be in the NFL. You can be here today and gone tomorrow. So you've got to be able to put your best foot forward at any moment and I think that he's ready to take on that position."
Roy Robertson-Harris also is expected to be part of the rotation at defensive end. After spending his rookie season on injured reserve in 2016, the 6-7, 294-pounder played in 12 games as a reserve last year, compiling seven tackles, one sack and one tackle-for-loss.
Nose tackle Eddie Goldman returns for a fourth season. The 2015 second-round pick started 15 games last year, recording 43 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three tackles-for-loss.
"As he stacks up with nose tackles, he's up there," Fangio said during the offseason. "He's another one that has gotten better and better through the whole process. Year 1 early this time and even more so in training camp, I didn't see a whole lot. That year he got better and better.
"Then Year 2 was lost. I think he played 15 percent of the plays and five percent of those he was playing hurt. And then last year I think he had a good season. He's a good, solid player, and if he's going to be considered more than a good, solid player, this would be the year to show it."
The Bears bolstered their defensive line in the draft by selecting Bilal Nichols in the fifth round. The 6-4, 290-pounder was a four-year contributor and two-year starter at Delaware. Playing in a 3-4 defense for the first time last season as a senior, Nichols was named first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association after registering 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one interception.
Nichols will play defensive end for the Bears, who feel that he's a good fit for their defense due in part to his toughness and potential as a pass rusher.
"For his size, he's athletic," Pace said after the draft. "The toughness and rugged style he plays with stands out. We sent [defensive line coach] Jay Rodgers up there to have a private workout with him. We spent a lot of time with him up in Delaware, and we just feel like he has a lot of upside. He has a lot of upside specifically as an inside rusher, which we value too."