By Robert Zeglinski
Since 2016, the Bears’ defense has had the fortune of steady dominance from Akiem Hicks. Hicks, 28, has become one of the best free agent signings in franchise history due to relentless pass pressure up front. If he’s not pressuring the quarterback himself, Hicks has the ability to draw attention for others like Leonard Floyd to thrive. Overall, the stellar defensive end has a bull rush and power game in all facets not many offensive linemen are capable of slowing down. From being overlooked, to superstar, to last fall’s contract extension and morphing into the current face of the Bears’ defense: Hicks has come a long way.
The problem, as it always is in team building, is that the Bears have nothing reliable opposite Hicks yet. For a defense that ranked 9th in scoring and 10th in yardage in 2017, they need more “oomph” from certain positions to take the next step towards a winning unit. One of those areas is the starting defensive end not named Hicks.
Training camp being a little over two weeks away means the Bears have time to sort this dilemma out. Over the past few seasons, veteran fill-in Mitch Unrein has held down this role. But for as solid of a teammate and player Unrein is, he’ll never be confused for anything more than a role player. Hence mainly why the Bears allowed him to depart to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year’s free agency.
No, this defensive end competition will instead take place between two hungry players who have been waiting for this chance. That’s referring to Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, of course.
These are two Bears dripping with potential that haven’t been able to fully showcase their abilities in anything less than spot play to this point.
Part of that was due to Unrein’s presence, who had more than earned his playing time. A solid player that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and former head coach John Fox knew they could trust. One of the premier run-defending defensive linemen in the NFL.
And part of that was due to both Bullard and Robertson-Harris simply not showing enough to be previously trusted with more responsibility. Unrein’s departure and no other clear answer to fill a sizable void means these two Bears are now featured in the headlined positional battle of this year’s hysteria in Bourbonnais.
Each, while gifted in their own right, has had an entirely different career trajectory. Roberson-Harris and Bullard come from two different backgrounds and two different schools of thought as likely major Bears contributors.
Let’s examine the tale of the tape in this heavyweight Chicago battle.
Can Bullard finally live up to expectations?
The question with Bullard has never been natural ability. Many called the 2016 third round selection a first round talent because of his power, hand usage, and technique off the ball. The former Florida Gator jumped off the page any time you examined him in college. When the Bears drafted him, it was believed he was one of the steals of the draft for that reason.
Two years into his career and that lofty bar has nowhere near been cleared for Bullard. A player who had 18 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in his senior college season, has 33 total tackles and two sacks in four career starts from 2016 to 2017. Concerns coming out raised by NFL Network lead draft analyst Lance Zierlein stating that Bullard “doesn’t play with much quick-twitch movement” and that he’s easily “turned out of gaps by double teams” have mostly come to fruition.
A 3-4 defensive end that can’t play two gaps and who has limited quickness to his game is going to be eventually lost in the shuffle. Bullard is the perfect example. These struggles for the 6-f00t3, 295 pounder were fine for him as a rookie considering he was learning the ropes. To make no tangible impact and not seize a starting position as an NFL sophomore raises red flags.
Fangio said last spring that he believed Bullard was “better prepared” for the rigors of the NFL and that sentiment didn’t come true. Occasional flashes of one gap brilliance aren’t enough to entrench yourself. Going into his third now prove-it year in an open competition, the bright defensive end has no more excuses to not consistently excel.
Does Robertson-Harris have enough experience?
As a 2016 undrafted free agent out of UTEP, Robertson-Harris wasn’t always planned to be a 3-4 defensive end in the Bears’ scheme. The freakishly sized 6-foot-7, 295 pounder was first going to play outside linebacker for Chicago after weighing in at 255 pounds.
A heat-related illness suffered late in the summer of 2016 changed his developmental track forever. His rookie year instead became a redshirt season where Robertson-Harris focused on bulking up to his current massive frame. The Bears needed defensive line depth and talent, and they were counting on Robertson-Harris making a mostly smooth transition.
The thing about changing positions so dramatically in the NFL, though, is that learning the intricacies take time. Sometimes you need more than one off-season to be completely comfortable with your duties. No speed training, weight lifting, and film study combined can simulate the firsthand experience of game action against a live opponent. After initial high hopes and flashes for Robertson-Harris at the start of the 2017 season, this became reality. Factor in concussion and hamstring issues suffered that were out of his control, and he never received the full-on chance to prove himself to the Bears last year.
Over a half year later, Robertson-Harris is a half year wiser. He knows what the Bears’ defensive coaches expect of him and he can play and react, instead of thinking and leaving himself vulnerable. He can maximize his basketball player size and athletic prowess to it’s fullest. The experience means the world, as defensive line coach Jay Rodgers told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“He got a full season of what it’s like,” Rodgers said in June of Robertson-Harris. “Now he’s got an expectation that’s a little bit different, almost a higher expectation for himself, because he understands it.”
A little less polished at the position than his counterpart in Bullard, most still understand the sky is the limit for Robertson-Harris. Mainly, because they don’t know what to expect. Though, you don’t attain seven tackles, two sacks, and one pass defended in extremely limited time because of injuries and adjustment struggles without knowing you belong. All things considered, Robertson-Harris can seize the day with the Bears. It’s about following through.
All bets are off
Bullard and Robertson-Harris play on the same side of the ball, so they won’t directly butt heads with one another in camp. However, you’d be remiss to think that they won’t be monitoring the other’s progress this summer, nipping at the heels. That they won’t be constantly pushing each other to improve. A starting job is on the line. All bets are off.
Whoever wins becomes the needed difference-making partner for Hicks. Whoever wins becomes an incremental piece of a budding first-rate Bears’ defense.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.