Steve Lundy/
Philadelphia Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood fumbles on a 2 point conversion during the Bears loss to the Eagles 16-15 in the NFC wild card game Sunday, January 6, 2019 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Steve Lundy/ Philadelphia Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood fumbles on a 2 point conversion during the Bears loss to the Eagles 16-15 in the NFC wild card game Sunday, January 6, 2019 at Soldier Field in Chicago. — Steve Lundy

Despite coordinator Vic Fangio’s departure to become the Broncos' head coach, it’s impossible not to be optimistic about the future of the Bears’ defense.

Nickel CB Bryce Callahan and S Adrian Amos are the only two among the top 12 defenders who aren’t under contract for next season. But the cause for optimism goes much deeper than that because the defense has been built with an eye toward sustained success. Nine of those 12 players are under contract for at least two more years, and six of them are locked up for at least three more years.

And it’s possible that Callahan or Amos, or both could be back, at least if Prince Amukamara has a say in it.

“I know me and Kyle (Fuller) are probably going to try to recruit Amos and Bryce to think about staying a little bit longer,” said Amukamara, who is under contract for two more years, one less than Fuller. “But we know it's a big choice, and we know those guys worked hard to put themselves in a position that they're in by being free agents.”

With or without Callahan and Amos, the Bears should have a monster defense again, one capable of picking up any slack that might come with a still-developing offense and a young quarterback.

And it's a job opening that almost any defensive coach would relish -- masterminding a youthful crew that has already established itself as dominant, although every one of the key players is under 30.

“We're excited about the continuity, and the consistent group should be (about) the same,” Amukamara said. “And we're excited to have Mack for a full offseason and get him into knowing the playbook a little bit better and we're excited to all work together as a group.”

Mack’s deal runs through 2024. Hicks, who was second to Mack’s 12.5 sacks with 7.5, is under contract for three more years. OLB Leonard Floyd, who played the best football of his career in the second half of the season, will be a Bear for two more seasons, if the team picks up his fifth-year option, as expected. Those three form the core of a pas rush that was 10th in sack percentage, even though Floyd had zero sacks in the first eight games, while he essentially played with one hand, wearing a club on his broken right hand.

“One thing that’s great about our rush is they erase a lot of things,” Amukamara said. “We joke, we call them Ajax, just because any time there’s a mishap on the back end, Khalil, Akiem or Floyd, they sack the quarterback or tip the ball, and it makes us look a little bit better.”

Because of the relative youth and the continuity that has already been developed, all three levels of the Bears’ defense should continue to grow. Despite their stinging playoff loss, just a day later players were already looking ahead to the future and to completing the job they’ve set out to do.

“I know we're going to come back next season even better after another whole year of being together,” Floyd said. “I'm looking forward to it. Next season we'll have that mindset of getting back to where we were at -- and finishing.”

Mack was largely credited with elevating the Bears from a top-10 defense to arguably the best in the league, and he’s anxious to achieve more, which is likely with a full offseason in the program.

“You see the potential,” Mack said. “Now it’s up to the guys to take this and learn from it and get better this offseason, including myself. It was a steppingstone in the right direction. Solid year. Something we can use to keep this thing going. That’s what we’ve got to look forward to at this point.”

That play up front helped Fuller and S Eddie Jackson make the All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl, where they will join Hicks and Mack. Jackson is signed for two more years, and considering he was a fourth-round draft pick, he’s an incredible bargain, with cap hits of just $811,449 and $901,450 over the next two years.

That’s crucial, considering the huge bites that the recent deals for Mack, Fuller, Hicks and Eddie Goldman (signed through 2022) will take out of the salary cap in coming years. The continued development of fifth-round draft pick Bilal Nichols is important for the same reason. After some early growing pains, Nichols started five of the final six games and moved past Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard on the depth chart. Nichols’ deal tops out at $750,000 in 2021, potentially making it one of the better value deals in the league if he continues to develop.

Mack’s cap hit in each of the next six years is between $22 million and $24.5 million. Fuller goes from $13.5 million next year, to $17.5 million in 2020 and $18.5 million in the final year of his deal. Hicks counts between $10 and $12 million in each of the next three seasons, while Goldman counts $7.55 million next year, $10.05 million in 2020, $11.06 million in 2021 and $18.14 million in 2022.

That’s a boatload of money, but as the Bears’ defense proved while doing most of the heavy lifting throughout a landmark 2018 season, it’s worth it. And the defense should continue to return value for at least the next couple years.

LOCKED (UP) AND LOADED (Year in which top Bears defenders are under contract through)

OLB Khalil Mack (2024)

ILB Roquan Smith (2022)*

NT Eddie Goldman (2022)

DL Akiem Hicks (2021)

CB Kyle Fuller (2021)

DL Bilal Nichols (2021)

CB Prince Amukamara (2020)

S Eddie Jackson (2020)

OLB Leonard Floyd (2020)*

ILB Danny Trevathan (2019)

S Adrian Amos (UFA)

CB Bryce Callahan (UFA)

*If fifth-year option is exercised