Bears' Defensive Line Depth Becomes Costly Luxury
One of the great strengths of the Bears defenses could vanish during only a few days of free agency unless they open up the wallet.
Defensive line depth allowed the Bears to remain viable when Akiem Hicks went out with an elbow injury, and when Bilal Nichols last year had to fight his way through a broken hand.
Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Williams, Abdullah Anderson and Brent Urban pulled it together, and in Williams' case the improvement came in a dramatic fashion.
When free agency begins, the Bears risk losing three of their backups and it's entirely possible two would leave.
Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers remains a major reason the Bears seem to be able to keep finding more talent up front. He was a big force in Hicks improving greatly once he came to Chicago, and in the improvement of Robertson-Harris. He may need to do even more developmental work in the future.
"I think as we're going to continue to grow our team it's about drafting and developing our players," Bears GM Ryan Pace said.
When players develop, they have to be paid. Williams made six sacks. He'd never made a sack in four previous seasons during his career. He had never played more than 17 percent of a defense's snaps in the past, and played 49 percent of them for the Bears in 2019.
So the marketplace will determine if he arrived last year or merely took advantage of all the attention being paid along the front to Khalil Mack.
"I think I'm gonna have fun in free agency this year," Williams said at the end of the season. "Obviously, I want to be back here. I want to be a Bear. I love this organization. They've afforded me a lot of great opportunities. I like this locker room. I like my teammates. We'll see what happens."
Robertson-Harris has been the epitome of a player who developed. He changed positions, from linebacker to the line, then almost immediately made strides under Rodgers.
Keeping Williams could be impossible due to lack of funds in the face of other needs. Robertson-Harris would be cheaper, but he still could be at risk.
Restricted free agency rarely costs teams players, but a big increase last year in the minimum tender amounts made it more possible for teams to steal away players by making tender offers.
Robertson-Harris is a restricted free agent and the minimum tender amount for this year is expected to be $2.144 million, according to Spotrac.com.
Last year it looked possible safety DeAndre Houston-Carson would be gone because he was a restricted free agent and the Bears decided they couldn't make a tender offer of that amount for him. So they didn't make a tender off and Houston-Carson essentially became an unrestricted free agent. Then no suitor came forth and the Bears got him back for $770,000.
Such a move is extremely unlikely to succeed with Robertson-Harris. He's already proven what he can do with 7 1/2 sacks over the three seasons and last year had a career-high 30 tackles while getting a career-high 51 percent of the defensive snaps.
It seems likely it will cost $2.144 million at the least to protect their investment with Robertson-Harris, or else they'll wind up relying on Rodgers' ability to quickly develop another young defensive lineman.
The Bears also can lose Urban, who signed for the rest of the season after being waived by Tennessee. He managed to get in on 16 tackles and used his 6-foot-7 height well to deflect two passes at the line while playing only 17 percent of the defensive snaps. He shows potential to be of help the way Williams was. Williams played only 44 snaps in 2018 but then became a force.
Considering all the cash demands facing the Bears, the defensive line's fate is one surrounded in uncertainty beyond starters Goldman, Hicks and Nichols.