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Bears training camp preview: Defensive line


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

The return of talented veteran defensive tackle Akiem Hicks from injury figures to give the Bears defense a gigantic boost in 2020.

Last season the 6-4, 352-pounder missed a Week 4 game against the Vikings with a knee injury and then sat out nine of the final 10 contests with an elbow injury he sustained in a Week 5 loss to the Raiders in London.

Now that Hicks is healthy, the Bears are hoping that he reverts to his 2018 form when he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl after recording 55 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 12 tackles-for-loss and 16 quarterback hits.

"What I'd like from him is to get back to where he was," said defensive line coach Jay Rodgers. "He missed a lot of games last year, so all of his production that he had from previous seasons, those are the things we missed.

"We know he's a dominant player inside. He creates a lot of problems for a lot of people. He's a mismatch for a lot of guards and centers and sometimes tackles as well. And those are the things that elevate your front—guys like him who are able to just dominate at his spot."

Hicks is complemented inside by nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a sixth-year pro who earned Pro Bowl alternate honors last season after compiling 29 tackles, one sack, two tackles-for-loss and two quarterback hits.

"I think he is a premier nose tackle in the NFL," Rodgers said. "I don't think there are many players that are as good as him at his position. There's a big difference when he's not in the game and when he is in the game."

The Bears have high expectations for third-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, who was limited last season with a broken hand he suffered in a Week 2 win over the Broncos in Denver. Nichols missed three games and then played with a cast on his hand for several weeks.

The 2018 fifth-round draft pick from Delaware recorded one more tackle in 2019 than he did as a rookie in 2018 (28-27) but fewer sacks (0-3), tackles-for-loss (1-5) and quarterback hits (2-7).

"Bilal is working extremely hard," Rodgers said. "I think some of the production he had as a rookie was very good. And some of the things he did in his second year were better, and then some things he can be better at.

"I have a lot of confidence in Bilal because he has a sparkle in his eye. He wants to be great, and he has lofty goals for himself. I'm looking forward to seeing what he looks like when he comes back into training camp and gets going."

Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris showed flashes of excellence last year, particularly in two home games against division rivals. The 6-5, 292-pounder registered one sack, two tackles-for-loss and two quarterback hits in the season opener versus the Packers and 1.5 sacks, one tackle-for-loss and two quarterback hits three weeks later in a win over the Vikings.

But Robertson-Harris, who joined the Bears in 2016 as an undrafted free agent from UTEP, didn't produce any sacks in the additional 13 games he played.

"The Green Bay game and Minnesota game were two games that really stood out to me," Rodgers said. "How do we get that kind of production for the course of the season? Those are the things we're working at, from a mental standpoint.

"It's not a physical thing. It's just being able to understand that you are having production because of the work that you put in from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. It's just about putting it together back-to-back-to-back-to-back for a full 16-game season. Those are sometimes hard things to do overnight.

"But I think that with expectation, you have to be able to block out all the positive things people are saying and the negative things people are saying and just go out there and do what you do, because he's shown the ability to perform at a high level."

Also returning this season are defensive end Brent Urban, who compiled 16 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and one quarterback hit in nine games last year after joining the Bears in mid-October; and defensive tackle Abdullah Anderson, who had four tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss and one quarterback hit in six contests in 2019.

The Bears added depth to their defensive line April 28 when they re-signed veteran free agent tackle John Jenkins.

The 6-3, 327-pounder has appeared in 82 NFL games with 29 starts over seven seasons, registering 155 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles-for-loss. Jenkins appeared in eight games with one start for the Bears in 2017, recording eight tackles. He has also played for the Saints (2013-16), Seahawks (2016), Giants (2018) and Dolphins (2019).

Jenkins was selected by the Saints in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Georgia when Bears general manager Ryan Pace worked in New Orleans' personnel department.

The Bears also signed a pair of undrafted free agent defensive linemen this year, Mississippi State tackle Lee Autry and Duke tackle Trevon McSwain.

Ahead of the start of training camp, take a look at the 9 players who will line up along the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball at Halas Hall this summer.