As expected, the Chicago Bears cleaned house after the end of the 2021 regular season, parting ways with both general manager Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy. The on-field results didn't always present themselves on the field, and personnel decisions were head-scratching at times.
So now the team is moving forward in a different direction. Ryan Poles, who was previously the Kansas City Chiefs' executive director of player personnel, was hired as the new general manager on Jan. 25. Shortly after that, Poles hired former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to be the team's new head coach.
The Bears have 24 pending unrestricted free agents on their roster (per Spotrac.com) and also have some decisions to make about veteran players that are under contract. It'll be the job of the new front office and coaching staff to decide which players will be a part of the rebuilding effort.
Some of those free agents are on the defensive line, a position that accounted for 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss in 2021. The Bears have been using a 3-4 alignment since 2015. But when you consider the coaching changes, they could quite possibly revert to a 4-3 scheme next season. Until that's all sorted out, here is how the Bears currently stack up along the defensive line.
If Allen Robinson II is the most crucial free agent on offense, then Hicks owns that title on this side of the ball. Through injuries, inconsistency, player turnover, and coaching changes, Hicks has been among the few constants. Since joining the Bears in 2016, he's totaled 246 tackles, 51 tackles for a loss, 31 sacks, 88 quarterback hits, five forced fumbles, and eight pass deflections. He's a disruptive force against both the pass and the run, and he is nearly impossible to block at times.
But while his production overall speaks for itself, there are some tough questions that must be answered about Hicks. For starters, he's getting older. He turned 32 in November, and the skills of most NFL players usually start to decline after 30. Are the Bears willing to make another significant investment in Hicks as he gets older?
And while his overall body of work stands out, his production has been back and forth in recent seasons. After posting 55 total tackles in 2018, that number dropped 10 in 2019, rose back up to 49 in 2020, but dipped back to 25 last year. The same can be said for the TFL category, which was 12 in 2018, one in 2019, seven in 2020, and five in 2021. After Hicks recorded 7.5 sacks in '18, he only got to the quarterback once in '19 — and just 3.5 times each in both '20 and '21. The number of quarterback hits was also a mixed bag with 16 in '18, five in '19, 21 in '20, and nine in '21. Can Hicks get back to producing on a regular basis?
Health has also been an issue for Hicks in recent seasons. After playing a full season for three straight years from '16 to '18, Hicks only suited up for five games thanks to a dislocated elbow suffered in October 2019. He missed one game in '20 because of a hamstring issue and only played in nine games last season because of ankle and hamstring injuries, as well as COVID-19. Can Hicks stay healthy enough to play a full now-17 game regular season?
And lastly, the potential of changing alignments could also be an issue. The New Orleans Saints traded him to New England in 2015 because he couldn't adjust to their 4-3 set. Then again, they were trying to turn him into a defensive end. Perhaps he's better suited as a tackle in this front, but only time will tell. Rest assured that all of these issues will weigh on both the team and the player.
After sitting out the '20 campaign due to the pandemic, Goldman returned last season, but there was some rust when he took the field. That was evidenced by the fact that he only accounted for 22 tackles, one TFL, half a sack, and one QB hit. Goldman has two years and roughly $19 million left on his current contract. He'll be 30 at the end of the deal, so he'll need to pick his numbers back up if he wants another significant contract.
The Delaware alumnus was the Bears' most productive D-lineman last year as he led this group in tackles (51), was tied with Hicks for the lead in TFLs (5), and only trailed Hicks in sacks (3.0). Now Nichols is ready to hit the open market. Since the Bears selected him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, he's responsible for 146 tackles, 18 TFLs, 11 sacks, 31 QB hits, and five pass deflections. If the Bears don't bring Hicks back, they'd be wise to keep Nichols in the fold.
Mario Edwards Jr.
This seven-year veteran has made the most of his reps as a rotation player off the bench. In that role with the Bears over the last two seasons, Edwards has made 25 tackles, 7 TFLs, 6.0 sacks, 12 QB hits, and two pass deflections in 27 games. The Bears are expecting him to continue to make his presence felt after locking him up for another two years.
This BYU product made 24 tackles in 15 games as a rookie, and the Bears have Tonga on board for the next three seasons. They are very high on his future potential, and the Bears are looking forward to getting him back on the field for Year 2.
Blackson also provided valuable depth and production as he posted 43 tackles, three TFLs, 2.5 sacks, nine QB hits, and an interception in 17 games in 2021. The Bears hope he'll add to those numbers as he's signed for one more year next season ($2.6 million).
The Bears signed him to a one-year deal after appearing in three games and recording one tackle for the Houston Texans in 2020.
This journeyman gave the Bears valuable snaps as injuries and COVID cases took their toll on the team. He made 14 tackles and three TFLs in 10 games last season; perhaps the Bears could re-sign him to a one-year "prove it" deal for 2022.
He's been a practice squad player for the Bears since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Western Illinois in 2020. He rejoined the team for 2022 on a reserve/futures contract and has a chance to see regular-season action.
Regardless of what happens with Hicks and Nichols, the Bears will need to add more depth to this position in order to be even more productive in 2022. Unless the lesser-known players in this group can step up for this team.
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.