By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma–

(670 The Score) After a while, Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks was no secret to opposing offensive lines. He earned plenty of respect and found himself meeting double teams off the snap.

The 28-year-old Hicks put together his best NFL season in 2017, recording a career-best 8.5 sacks and leading a Bears defense that made major strides. But it was the issue of those double teams that reflected a defense still needing more.

Hicks became the focal point of opposing protections when Leonard Floyd suffered his season-ending knee injury, as he recorded just 1.5 sacks in those final six games without the Bears’ best edge rusher playing. Still, the Bears know well they have a young player getting better and better in Hicks.

The Bears defensive line proved in 2017 to be their best position group of any, the key behind the No. 10 ranking in total defense. The injury to Floyd illustrated a need at outside linebacker and also how the Bears need another 5-technique opposite Hicks.

Eddie Goldman, 24, had a strong season at nose tackle. A key player alongside Hicks, Goldman did his part in stuffing the run and taking on double teams. But the Bears have still been searching for another presence at defensive end.

Veteran Mitch Unrein, who turns 31 in March, has been an underrated player during his time with the Bears. Pro Football Focus tabbed him as the top-graded interior defender slated to hit the open market in March.

Jonathan Bullard made progress during his second NFL season, establishing the trust of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Meanwhile, Roy Robertson-Harris emerged as a role player after adding size and shifting over to defensive end from outside linebacker.

The defensive line stands in good shape entering 2018, but another piece is needed.

Returning: Akiem Hicks, 28; Eddie Goldman, 24; Jonathan Bullard, 24; Roy Robertson-Harris, 24; Rashaad Coward, 23

General manager Ryan Pace has done well in establishing depth on the defensive line for the Bears. Hicks and Goldman are the anchors to this defense, the front line for Fangio’s pass rush.

In Hicks and Goldman, the Bears have created a dynamic tandem on the defensive line with two players who complement each other well. Extending Goldman’s contract beyond this season should be a priority for Pace and the Bears once the dust settles for other roster needs. Hicks is locked in through 2021 after agreeing to an extension last September.

Bullard hasn’t broken out the way the Bears hoped, but he has at least emerged as a reliable rusher and capable rotation player. Robertson-Harris was a bright spot last season for the Bears, using a bulked-up frame effectively and earning a spot at defensive end. Coward played one game last season.

Pending free agents: Mitch Unrein, 30 (UFA); John Jenkins, 28 (UFA)

Losing Unrein would hurt for a Bears defense that has come to rely on his play. He has started 21 games over the last three seasons, including eight in 2017. Though Unrein has just 4.5 career sacks, he’s an effective player against the run and a respected veteran in the locker room.

He 6-foot3, 327-pound Jenkins was active for just eight games last season and was merely a depth piece at nose tackle. He’s set to be an unrestricted free agent.

What’s next?

The Bears have greater needs than defensive line throughout their roster and major priorities ahead for free agency and the draft.

Re-signing Unrein would be an important step in solidifying the defensive line for this season. He would certainly be a welcomed addition back for that group.

Pace could seek another pass-rushing 5-technique in free agency to plug in opposite Hicks, but what’s more likely is retaining Unrein and hoping Bullard can emerge as the starter. Locking in Goldman should certainly be a priority when the time comes this offseason. The later rounds of the draft could bring the Bears a young player who tickles the scouting convictions of Pace and his brass.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670 The Score Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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