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Training camp position preview: Defensive line


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

The defensive line that helped the Bears lead the NFL in several statistical categories and win the NFC North title last season returns intact this year.

The unit is led by Akiem Hicks, a seven-year veteran who has blossomed into one of the league's best defensive tackles since joining the Bears in 2016.

The 6-5, 332-pounder anchored the defensive line in 2018, leading the Bears with 12 tackles-for-loss while ranking second with 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 16 quarterback hits.

"I thought he had a really good year," said coach Matt Nagy. "He was impactful, just dominating that line of scrimmage. He was able to disrupt the quarterback and was great versus the run. It's what we talked about in training camp; for him to come out and be a dominant player, and he did that."

Hicks recorded a career-high five tackles-for-loss in a Nov. 18 win over the Vikings that gave the Bears sole possession of first place. He also scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal Dec. 2 against the Giants, becoming the first Bears defensive lineman to rush for a touchdown since William "Refrigerator" Perry in Super Bowl XX.

Hicks was thrilled to be voted to his first Pro Bowl, saying: "Being selected to the Pro Bowl is an honor. I have played the game of football my entire life and this is the greatest accolade I've ever achieved. To be respected by my peers and the greatest fans in professional sports is an honor. I'm extremely proud to represent the Bears organization along with the City of Chicago."

Hicks has performed exceptionally well since signing with the Bears as a free agent in 2016. While he made the Pro Bowl for the first time in seven NFL seasons in 2018, his numbers were even better in 2017 when he registered 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss.

At the Bears100 Celebration in June, Hicks was challenged by former Bears greats to perform at an even higher level.

"I've gotten to talk to Dan Hampton before and I have a lot of respect for him and his knowledge of the game," Hicks said. "So to actually listen to him tell an auditorium full of people that he expects greatness from me, that puts a weight on your shoulders and I love to lift, so we're going to get after it." 

Also back is nose tackle Eddie Goldman. The 6-4, 320-pounder excelled against the run and the pass in 2018, compiling 40 tackles, three sacks, five tackles-for-loss, three quarterback hits and one fumble recovery.

The Bears unearthed a gem in the fifth round of last year's draft in defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, who earned more playing time as the season progressed. The 6-4, 290-pounder appeared in 14 games with six starts as a rookie in 2018, recording 28 tackles, three sacks, five tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Nichols was voted to the NFL All-Rookie Team along with two Bears teammates, linebacker Roquan Smith and guard James Daniels.

Other defensive line contributors who also return in 2019 include Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard, both of whom played in all 16 games last season. Robertson-Harris registered 20 tackles, three sacks and three tackles-for-loss, while Bullard produced 18 tackles and three tackles-for-loss.

In 2018, the defensive line helped the Bears lead the NFL in fewest points per game (17.7), takeaways (36), interceptions (27), interception return touchdowns (5), lowest opponent passer rating (72.9) and fewest rushing yards per game (80.0).