Returning most of their defensive roster, the common thought is the Bears are going to take a big step up next year. That’s only true if their key players stay on the field and improve.
As badly as the Bears were hurt by injury last season, they managed to keep most of their key defensive players on the field. They had injuries to players like Quintin Demps and Jerrell Freeman, but those are two positions at which they proved to have great depth.
Three of their four starters in the secondary played at least 80% of snaps, the fourth was Adrian Amos, who played every snap in eight games. Their best defensive lineman played 85% of snaps. Their best linebacker came in at 67.4%.
The biggest injury loss last year came when Leonard Floyd went down, but they were fortunate it happened toward the end of their schedule when they played several horrendous teams.
A repeat of last year’s success is far from a guarantee, but it’s also possible they take a huge step up. In any event, these five players just might be the most crucial:
5. Bryce Callahan
In the modern NFL, the slot corner is basically a starter. Callahan played just under 50% of the team’s snaps and they missed him when he wasn’t out there.
According to NFL Game Statistics and Information System, no regular player had a bigger impact on the team’s passing defense in terms of net yardage. Partly because Cre’Von LeBlanc was his backup. As feisty as LeBlanc is, he’s too small and slow and his biggest strength — aggressiveness — often comes back to bite him.
Unless the Bears have an undrafted gem, the slot corner is surely going to be manned by the duo of Callahan and LeBlanc again, which really means they need Callahan.
4. Roquan Smith
It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a rookie, but Smith is the future of the second level of the Bears defense.
Danny Trevathan is a good player, but he’s better suited in a role where he can roam freely to make plays and not have to call the defensive plays. Smith just might be calling the plays Week 1, as he did at Georgia, and the Bears will rely on his ability to run sideline-to-sideline, drop back in coverage and chase quarterbacks to take their defense to another level.
Smith’s backup is Nick Kwiatkowski, not a terrible player, but he struggled badly in coverage last year. It was at the point where the Bears were taking him off the field late in the season. With Smith, they’re expecting a three down player who can do it all. It’s a lot to put on a rookie, but he can handle it.
3. Kyle Fuller
You can pretty much bank on Prince Amukamara missing time. The Bears can’t have both of their cornerbacks be iffy.
Fuller’s 2017 season wasn’t a fluke; he played at a similar level in 2015. Of course, he missed all of the 2016 season and the team had to rely on a handful of non-NFL talents to replace him and it showed. The Bears have Marcus Cooper as their third cornerback, but a bunch of question marks outside of that. If both Fuller and Amukamara are down, it could be bad, bad news.
Just being on the field isn’t enough for Fuller. If he’s going to earn the contract the Bears gave him, he needs to start taking the ball away. He’s shown flashes of being able to do so, now he needs to do it regularly.
2. Leonard Floyd
If Floyd is merely as good as he was last year, the Bears shouldn’t have a problem maintaining their defensive success. But life isn’t that simple.
Floyd’s biggest problem in his first two seasons has just been staying on the field. He had numerous injuries as a rookie and suffered a knee injury late last season. The Bears hope that as he continues to get stronger and learn better fundamentals, he’ll be able to stay on the field. He better. They don’t have another surefire pass rusher on the team.
Where the discussion around Floyd gets interesting is the fact that he has the talent to become one of the most dominant pass rushers in the league. He just has rare tools and has shown flashes of being absolutely dominant. If he can be that player consistently in 2018, the Bears defense will be one of the best in the league.
1. Akiem Hicks
The Bears were a little too reliant on Hicks last year and it showed. He had just 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the team’s final seven games.
Hicks anchors the team’s run defense with his ability to hold up against double teams and shoot gaps. He’s also the team’s premier interior rusher and pocket crusher. There just aren’t many, maybe any, 330-pounders who can do the things that Hicks does.
It’s hard to imagine the team’s defense without him largely because they haven’t had to. The Bears have been extremely fortunate that they’ve gotten 32 games out of their mammoth defensive end the last two years. Not only has he not missed a start, he’s barely missed any time, playing 85% of the team’s snaps last year and 86.5% two years ago.
Big guys aren’t usually this durable and the Bears can’t rely on Hicks to play that many snaps in 2018. He’ll turn 29 early in the season — not old, but not young — and the snaps on teams that won a combined eight games are bound to add up.
Jon Bullard might improve in 2018. Eddie Goldman should be better. Bilal Nichols is interesting. None of them can do what Hicks does and it’s unreasonable to expect any of them to fill his shoes.
He’s the most important player on the defense and one of the most important on the team.