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With the dust settled on the Bears' breakthrough 2018 campaign, former longtime NFL scout and Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel is analyzing the performance of every player on the roster last season:
Akiem Hicks —He showed dominating ability, starting in the first game in Green Bay. In one-on-one situations, Hicks was almost impossible to block. He has rare strength and power and his hand use is among the best in the NFL. Though he has played well since he became a Bear in 2016, he easily had his best season, with 56 total tackles, 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Not only was his play outstanding, but so is his leadership. Hicks is the vocal leader of the defense.
Eddie Goldman –Goldman has shown steady improvement since his rookie year in 2015, when he played too heavy. Now a lean 320 pounds, he controls the center of the line. He has become one of the best run defenders in football and his pass-rush ability keeps improving. At 25, he has just begun to scratch the surface of how good he can be.
Bilal Nichols – The Bears' surprise find of the 2018 draft, Nichols kept getting better and better during the season. His physical traits are among the best of Chicago's D-linemen (4.95 in the 40, 30.5” VJ, 9’4” LJ). Nichols was a 2-gap nose tackle at Delaware who quickly developed into a penetrating 5-tech for the Bears. His get-off quickness is among the team's best, and his hand usage is advanced for a rookie. The sky is the limit for Nichols.
Roy Robertson-Harris – Robertson-Harris was an OLB in college and grew into a 5-tech for the Bears. He is probably the most gifted athlete of the group and his played has improved every year. He went from 13 total tackles in 2017 to 22 in 2018, when his sack total improved from 2 to 3. While he is not a starter, he is a key rotational player whogets most of his snaps on pass-rush downs. RRH is only 25 and still relatively new to the defensive line position — he still has upside.
Jonathan Bullard –At the beginning of the season, Bullard was viewed as the starting right defensive end in the base package. He was surpassed by Nichols and Robertson-Harris as the season went on. Bullard might not have played up to expectations for the Bears based on his third round draft selection in 2016, but he is still a vital part of the rotation. With one year remaining on his rookie deal, Bullard is a bargain, and you can bet he will be back next season.
Nick Williams –Williams was one of the last players signed to the Bears roster this past spring. He is a veteran who was asked to provide depth, which he did. Because of the health of his linemates, Williams only played in two games. He is not under contract for 2019 so it remains to be seen if he will be brought back.
What else can we add? Mack is one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL, proving to be the missing link for this defense. After the Bears acquired Mack, their defense improved in all areas dramatically. Mack did this without being 100 percent for a good part of the season after suffering a high ankle sprain vs. Miami and then missing two games. Still, he finished the year with 47 total tackles, 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and an interception.
Mack did two things: Made everyone on the Bears defense a better player just by his presence and determination and forced teams to prepare and scheme to stop him, allowing his teammates to become playmakers. With Mack approaching his age-28 campaign, he still has a number of quality seasons remaining.
Floyd broke his hand during the preseason, and for the better part of the first half of 2018, he had to play with a cast on that hand. It limited what Floyd could do with his hands, and his production suffered. After the cast was removed, I felt Floyd played his best football since becoming a Bear. He hasn’t became the pass rusher we envisioned — yet — but his all-around game is superb. He can defend the run, get rid of blockers and play in coverage, as well as pass rush. His best pass-rush work came at the end of the season, so we might see more production in 2019.
Trevathan doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves. He makes the defensive calls and has excellent production. His instincts are tremendous and he is able to make plays with that outstanding anticipation. He was the Bears' second-leading tackler (102), in addition to recording two interceptions and two sacks. With fellow inside ‘backer Roquan Smith, the Bears have the best ILB duo in football.
Had Smith authored that rookie season for another team, he would have been strongly mentioned for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. But because he played on a star-studded unit, most of his play went unnoticed by the voters. Based on what I saw in Smith as a rookie, he will become one of the best inside linebackers in all of the NFL. There is not a weak part of his game. Early in the season, I felt man coverage was a weakness, but by the end he turned that into a strength. Smith lacks great size, but he is so fast and instinctive that he makes up for it.
Aaron Lynch, Nick Kwiatkoski, Isiah Irving
This trio formed the main OLB reserves, and all earned a fair amount of play time. Lynch was the top backup and could start for many teams in the league. He isn’t as explosive as Mack and Floyd, but he has great strength and power, which shows up in his overall play. Kwiatkoski is very reliable. He doesn’t have the speed or quickness of Trevathan and Smith, but he has very good instincts. Irving is a player on the rise; all he needs is play time to improve. It remains to be seen how long he will remain a Bear, as he will want an opportunity to get more snaps.
Fuller has come a long ways in the past two years, from potentially getting cut or traded to an All Pro and one of the better corners in the game. Sometimes clubs worry about giving a player a big contract because they forget how they earned that deal and stop performing. That was not the case with Fuller, who went from having a good 2017 to an even better 2018, when he improved in all areas of the game. His seven interceptions is the best by a Bears corner since 2012 (Tim Jennings, 9), and he is also very good in run support. Only 27, he’ll keep getting better.
Like Fuller, Amukamara was rewarded with a big, new contract prior to the 2018 season and responded with his best year. He finished the season with three interceptions, which tied for his career best (2014 with the Giants). His 66 total tackles were also the second-best of his career. Very good vs. both the pass and run, Amukamara is probably the Bears' best press-man cover guy. He’ll be 30 at the start of this season, but there is no reason to feel that he is beginning to lose any of his very good traits. In short, he is one of the better No. 2 corners in the NFL.
The Bears got a steal when they found Jackson in Round 4. If it weren't for his injury in his final year at Alabama, he might have gone in the second. He has top instincts and ball reactions and always finds himself in position to make plays. That’s why he had six interceptions and two touchdowns in 2018. If there is an area where he could still improve, it’s his run support.
For a fifth-round draft pick, Amos has had one heck of a career. A starter for the Bears all four years, he's a very productive strong safety. He might never be a Pro Bowler, but Amos plays steady week after week and might be the Bears' best run-supporting defensive back He has improved in coverage, as evidenced by his two interception last season.
Amos is out of contract, so it remains to be seen if he will re-sign with the Bears or see what kind of value he has on the free-agent market.
He did an outstanding job as the Bears' slot corner until he broke his foot in Game 13. Though Callahan isn't technically a “starter,” he actually started several games and played close to 80 percent of the defensive snaps before his injury. He finished the season with 47 tackles and two interceptions.
At 27, Callahan is playing the best football of his career, but he is now a free agent. With limited cap space this year, the Bears have a tough decision to make. He deserves a big raise, but the Bears can’t pay him starting corner money. The next few weeks will prove to be very interesting, as Callahan could be a difficult player to replace. The real question is, what’s the market value of a slot corner?
Bush stepped in to play for Eddie Jackson when Jackson went down with an ankle injury late in the year. Bush played well, but he isn’t the turnover machine that Jackson is. In my opinion, he is better in support than he is in coverage.
If Adrian Amos isn't re-signed, Bush would be the first in line to replace him. Bush might be ready for more play time, but who knows if he can play as well as Amos has the last two years. I don’t see Bush as having the instincts that Jackson and Amos have.
McManis is mainly a core special-teams player — and a very good one at that. When Callahan went down, McManis stepped up to replace him. He did a commendable job but isn’t nearly as good as Callahan.
Toliver made the Bears roster as a undrafted free agent after having a strong training camp. To be honest, his play surprised me when he had to perform in place of an injured Amukamara. I thought opposing teams would target Toliver, but he more than held his own on the field. He could have a bright future for the Bears, as tall corners (6’1) are hard to find.