A Pressing Future Need

The future seems set for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, considering the Bears were willing to trade him and his contract expires after this year, so there might be a need to come up with a replacement in this draft.
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NFL teams rarely stop looking toward the future even when their coach and GM are teetering on the edge of the possible abyss.

The show goes on, and it's a major reason everyone focuses on quarterback with the Bears in this NFL Draft even as they lack players at other positions to fill out the lineup card.

Most of the need positions the Bears can likely be filled by players with better chances to have an impact as rookies than a quarterback, who will be a designated sitter. Not all of those are on offense. Cornerback is an obvious one, but there's another one on defense. 

It's the interior defensive line position.

The entire Russell Wilson trade scenario brought forth something obvious about the Bears' future: This could be it for Akiem Hicks. You're not willing to throw him into a deal for a veteran quarterback unless he's deemed expendable.

Beyond this is his contract status and this is where it all becomes really mucky for the entire Bears defensive front.

Hicks is in the last year of his contract at $10.4 million salary this year.

When Ryan Pace was discussing where his team has progressed, he cited the development of young players like "Jaylon Johnson and Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney, James Daniels, David Montgomery ... those guys continuing to grow, that bodes well for the Bears," Pace said, and then a bit later pointed out he forgot to mention one other player in this group.

Bilal Nichols was that player.

The third-year defensive lineman will be out of his contract after the 2021 season. He went from a fifth-round draft pick to a complete surprise as a rookie, then last year came on strong for a career-high seven tackles in the win over the Vikings before matching it against New Orleans in the playoffs.

The Bears in 2022 would need to pay Nichols. If an undrafted project like Roy Robertson-Harris could get $23.4 million for three years in free agency, then Nichols should expect a much bigger pay day as a Bears draft pick who developed into a reliable player.

Nose tackle Eddie Goldman is under contract through 2023. Paying both Nichols and  Goldman bigger contracts is unlikely to leave room for Hicks. The pay model on defense won't allow for three big defensive line contracts.

So the Bears wouldn't be out of their minds for considering this a position of need.

Since they are sitting 20th in Round 1, it's entirely possible Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore could be available to them.

If the best tackles and cornerbacks are gone — and it seems fairly certain the best five quarterbacks will be off the board — then taking the best defensive lineman in the draft looks like a realistic option.

Barmore was a monster in the postseason, completely dominant. There are no other defensive linemen close to him in this draft, and it's generally regarded as a poor draft for defensive linemen.

ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay did what essentially was a tag-team mock draft of three rounds this week, and had Barmore tabbed as the top defensive lineman. But they didn't take him off the board until No. 44 in Round 2.

Others have put him anywhere into Round 1 as high as the top 10.

Players like Texas A&M's Bobby Brown III and North Carolina State's Alim McNeill rate fits size-wise for the model of big defensive linemen the Bears use. However, they're more likely to be Day 3 choices.

Many of the other top defensive linemen look more like three-technique types used in a 4-3 than like the big 3-4 two-gappers.

Barmore, himself, may be more of a gap shooter than someone who eats up blocks, but the Bears don't always ask their linemen to do this. It can be a dual role and Barmore is a real force attacking, so they'd likely let him eat.

It's difficult when players who have big parts in a team's success are suddenly discarded, age out, or are salaried out of the picture. 

The Bears have already had this happen with Kyle Fuller this offseason.

They need to be prepared for the eventuality with Hicks, and finding a defensive lineman in the draft now so he's ready in 2022 seems like a good way to do it.

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