No Degree of Certainty on Eddie Goldman

There haven't been enough players in their prime who leave the game a year and then return in their prime to know how much the opt-out situation affects production quality of players like Eddie Goldman.
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There is a great uncertainty regarding the Bears defense this year beyond their unsettled positions at left cornerback and slot cornerback.

It's an uncertainty facing many teams around the league.

It could be nothing, it could be something, and that's how nose tackle Eddie Goldman will play after a year away from the game.

Goldman and 66 other NFL players chose to sit out last year during the height of the pandemic and there has to be at least some concern over their ability to simply begin playing at a level they played at in other seasons.

It's been speculated some opt-outs at the college level fell in the draft simply because NFL teams are uncertain what to make of a year away from the field. Bears sixth-round draft pick Thomas Graham Jr. was one of those players, having been graded by Pro Football Focus as third-round potential.

Apparently the Bears are expecting it won't be a case of plug and play.

"Hopefully with Eddie Goldman it's like riding a bike," new Bears defensive line coach Chris Rumph said. "He'll just pick it back up and start pedaling again. He probably won't be able to pop any wheelies right now, but eventually he will be able to pop some wheelies.

"So I'm just excited to get him back in the building. I want to get to know him, get to know his heart and hopefully get him back to the level he's at and continue to get him higher and higher so he can get that peak performance."

Popping blockers and ball carriers instead of wheelies would be what the Bears want to see from Goldman. He was a key to their run-stopping ability prior to the pandemic and playing last year without him made it obvious they weren't the same defense.

The Bears slid to 15th against the run last year, their worst effort at stopping running attacks since 2016 when they won three games.

Goldman and Akiem Hicks hadn't yet established themselves as double trouble for run blockers on the inside at that point, but it began the next year and in 2018 they were No. 1 against the run.

Unlike many nose tackles, Goldman does more than just occupy blockers at the point of attack. He makes plays, as well. He's had 12 1/2 sacks, 20 quarterback hits and made 17 tackles for loss.

When Goldman and Hicks have been together since 2018, the Bears are 40 yards better per game against the run than when they don't have both.

So having Goldman popping those wheelies or ball carriers is going to make a huge difference for a defense trying to rebound with a new defensive coordinator.

Coaching is a factor in Goldman's return, as well. It's not so much Sean Desai's new approach, because Goldman's role didn't change much under Chuck Pagano from what it was under Vic Fangio in 2018 and Desai will use Fangio's style of play.

Rather, it's having Rumph instead of Jay Rodgers as a defensive line coach which could impact Goldman. Rodgers frequently was lauded for his ability to mold strong defensive lines, and he's now in Los Angeles with the Chargers. It will be the first time Goldman hasn't had Rodgers around as his position coach in the NFL. In his first year with the Bears, Rodgers helped Goldman make the all-rookie team.

Goldman isn't the only Bears player with this situation. Safety Jordan Lucas also sat out last year but is backup at a deep position and has never even played with the Bears. Goldman is unique as a starter, a Pro Bowl alternate in his prime and trying to come back from what essentially was a year's vacation.

Plenty of NFL players have missed entire seasons and haven't come back to the same level. The problem is, most missed it because of an injury and this figured into any attempt to make a comeback and their level of play.

Of those who didn't necessarily have injuries, the great majority have been nearing the end of their career and retired but then came back out of retirement. Lower levels of play almost seemed natural for them at this stage of their careers.

Running back Ricky Williams retired in his prime in 2003 when he was 26 and then returned after a year. He played in six more seasons and started only 13 more games. Marshawn Lynch, Reggie White and Randy Moss all retired and then came back after a year but all were into their 30s and past their primes. Jason Witten retired in 2017, and when he came back for Dallas he made the same number of catches (63) on four fewer targets than he made the previous year, although his yards per catch declined by half a yard.

Those are all rather irrelevant comparisons because Goldman plays a different type of position. He's involved in contact on every play and being physical is required. The year away could help heal up his body but would this necessarily mean he's capable of returning right at the same level?

When Graham went to play at the Senior Bowl it was his first time on a practice field in about a year and admitted he had to get used to the entire flow of it all again. Still, as Allen Iverson said, that was just practice.

Ultimately the selection of nose tackle Khyiris Tonga in the draft looks like an even wiser one even if it was made simply for depth purposes. They can never be certain about Goldman at this point.

"Obviously to get a guy who has some proven history in this league and played at a high level back is exciting for all of us," defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. "Again, we've all got to make sure he gets back and we see him playing football because none of us have seen him playing football in a year."

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