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Finding a D-End in Draft Tough for Bears

There are players who can play interior positions in the defensive line but its a down year and finding one who can play the position like Akiem Hicks will not be easy.

As difficult as it is for Kyle Fuller to simply be gone from the left cornerback position, it is possible to replace him.

If GM Ryan Pace did anything well in last year's draft, it was finding Jaylon Johnson in Round 2. 

Johnson is no finished product and hasn't even made an interception. He still made enough plays and showed enough consistency to became one of the league's better rookie cornerbacks, despite losing out to Cameron Dantzler and Jarius Sneed for the PFWA All-Rookie Team. Missing the final three regular-season games and the playoff game didn't help his cause in earning postseason honors. 

Finding a cornerback early in the draft is little problem because of the large number of standout prospects possible in the first three rounds.

The real problem for Pace in cleaning up the mess he made with his premature defensive rebuild is replacing Akiem Hicks, because a Chicago Tribune reports says the Bears have given him permission to seek a trade. In pro football language, this means you won't be here next year regardless.

It is far more difficult to come up with an impact defensive lineman capable of anything close to what Hicks did than it is to find a cornerback.

Considering the defensive scheme the Bears use, it's all the more difficult.

They need an interior defensive lineman who can be stout and occupy blockers, but also with the versatility to be a gap-shooting type occasionally who makes plays. Hicks did all of this. 

It's insufficient simply to replace him with a possible three-technique tackle from a 4-3 defense. The Bears could convert Bilal Nichols to Hicks' spot. He more or less was trained by Hicks, but he isn't the imposing physical presence Hicks is.

The defensive end on that side needs to be able to hold up in run support rather than shoot gaps. 

Simply throwing a No. 1 at Alabama's Christian Barmore might not do it and scowering through the top-ranked defensive linemen could produce other players but not quite a fit. 

"It is somewhat of a down year for defensive tackle prospects, with Christian Barmore and Levi Onwuzurike (Washington) topping our rankings—both players figure into the top 50 equation," FanNation's NFL Draft Bible wrote.

In other words, the Bears picked a heck of a year to decide to give up Akiem Hicks. 

However, Pace did find Nichols in Round 5. So it wouldn't be out of the question for him to go a bit earlier and find a potential Hicks replacement or even in the same round. Hicks, himself, was a third-round pick.

On the other hand, Pace did produce Jonathan Bullard in Round 3 and no one even remembers him now in Chicago.

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Barmore is not close to Hicks' size and numerous scouting reports call him a gap-shooting pass rusher who can't be a fit in a 3-4. His performance in the national title game suggests he can do whatever he wants whenever, but this was just one game, one opponent.

Here are three prime players who fit into the Hicks mold and were discussed earlier by in passing while examining the entire interior defensive line outlook.

Even if the Bears find a way out of this cap predicament and somehow keep Hicks, they would do well to consider these two because Hicks will be 32 years old this season and the end was likely coming next year when his contract expired, anyway.

If these options seem to be lacking something, it's because of how special a player Hicks is.

Marvin Wilson, Florida State

Wilson sort of falls into a crack, much the way Hicks complained about his own status. Hicks has never been regarded as a defensive end in Pro Bowl voting because he plays the interior defensive line. But he isn't really a tackle in a 4-3 sense. In this sense, Wilson is listed by some scouts as a nose tackle but this is exactly the kind of defensive lineman the Bears like in their 3-4. He can play end or even move to nose if necessary. He has interior pass rush value, as well.

Jonathan Marshall, Arkansas

Each week against top-level SEC opponents one player stood out for a Razorbacks team that struggled to three wins and was largely overmatched. It was Marshall, and he disrupted what these high-powered attacks wanted to accomplish. At 6-3, 317, he is an ideal size fit in the 3-4 Bears defense. Pro Football Focus ranked him among the three best defensive linemen in the SEC and scouting reports suggest he'd have no problem going to a 4-3 or 3-4. This is perfect for the Bears, who play more in a four-man package for passing situations than in their 3-4 base.

Marshall was second in the SEC last year with 29 quarterback pressures, although he had difficulty actually completing the task as he had only 1 1/2 career sacks with one coming in 2020. He made 71 career tackles, 1 1/2 of them for losses. Most of the time he was coming from the middle of the line, though, which made finishing tougher.

Coaches like the pressure, but he has to get there, too. Hicks has.

There is also some concern how he will stand up against NFL level blocking in the run game.

"Marshall's struggles come in the run game," NFL Draft Bible's scouting report said. "He was asked to play a lot (directly over center) in college, while his best positions at the next level will be shaded to the left or right of the offensive guard. His lack of length and overall strength are concerning."

Marshall has a fifth-round grade from NFL Draft Bible, although his success at creating pressure suggests he could be something more, much as Nichols has been.

Neil Farrell, LSU

He is about the size of Eddie Goldman at 6-4, 320 but is viewed as a rotational defensive end in a 3-4 or 4-3 nose. He was excellent stacking up the run and occupying the double team. But he lacked the explosive pass rush. He had 5 1/2 sacks and 12 1/2 tackles for loss in college. Because he has lacked the big-play potential of some other players and is projected as a possible Day 3 pick.

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