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Hicks, Bullard lead revamped d-line

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

OTHER POSITION PREVIEWS: Tight Ends | Quarterbacks | O-Line | Wide Receivers

Bears fans who attend training camp this summer in Bourbonnais will see an improved defensive line that was bolstered by two key offseason additions.

Determined to get bigger and stronger at the end position, the Bears signed veteran Akiem Hicks in free agency and selected Florida's Jonathan Bullard in the third round of the draft.

Hicks spent his first four NFL seasons with the Saints (2012-15) and Patriots (2015), playing in 61 games with 33 starts and compiling 140 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 22 tackles-for-loss. He was selected by New Orleans in the third round of the 2012 draft when Bears general manager Ryan Pace worked in the Saints personnel department.

A look at the Bears position by position. In the sixth of eight position previews in advance of Training Camp we look at the defensive line group in action.

The Patriots had been trying to re-sign Hicks, and the 6-5, 336-pounder was also attracting free-agent interest from the Lions before he decided to rejoin Pace with the Bears in March.

"It was a great benefit to us having a relationship beforehand and definitely one of the reasons that I considered making the visit to Chicago and really one of the final reasons that I made my decision to become a Chicago Bear," Hicks said after inking a two-year contract.

Bullard appeared in 50 games with 36 starts over four seasons at Florida, registering 178 tackles, 33.5 tackles-for-loss and 12 sacks. The 6-2, 290-pounder started his college career at end, moved to tackle late in his sophomore season, and opened his junior year back at end before switching to tackle late in the season.

As a senior, Bullard played two games at end and 12 at tackle, setting career highs with 66 tackles, 17.5 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks. The 17.5 tackles-for-loss were the most by a Florida player since former Bears defensive end Alex Brown had 18 in 1999.

Asked after the draft what he likes about Bullard as a pass rusher, Pace said: "It's his length and it's his get-off and it's his hand-use. He needs to work on his pad level a little bit when he's rushing the passer, and that can be coached. But some things that can't be coached are just the twitch and quickness he plays with, which will help him as a pass rusher. His get-off is excellent. There are a lot of advantages just from that alone."

Bullard is expected to compete with Mitch Unrein, a sixth-year pro who appeared in 14 games with four starts for the Bears last season, recording 32 tackles, one sack and two tackles-for-loss. The 6-4, 306-pounder originally joined the team last Sept. 25, one day after he was released by the Chargers.

Unrein spent his first four NFL seasons with the Broncos, where he played for Bears coach John Fox and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, both of whom served in the same capacity with Denver from 2011-14.

Unrein has also lined up as a fullback in short-yardage situations. In a Thanksgiving night win over the Packers last season, he threw a key block against linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. on Jeremy Langford's 1-yard touchdown run.

Pace and his staff have followed Unrein since he was at Wyoming. At the time, an opposing coach once showed his players tape of the defensive lineman as an example of the energy they should bring to the field. Unrein appealed to the Bears because of his non-stop motor as well as his toughness, intelligence, versatility and intensity.

In the middle of the line, nose tackle Eddie Goldman returns after a promising rookie season. The 2015 second-round pick from Florida State played in 15 games with 12 starts last year, recording 39 tackles. The 6-4, 320-pounder raised his level of play late in the season, registering 10 tackles, three sacks and three tackles-for-loss in a three-game span.

Other linemen who will compete for playing time in training camp and the preseason include Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton and Cornelius Washington.

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