As our training camp battle series continues, we examine the Chicago Bears at defensive end and who will emerge opposite Akiem Hicks.
In what could be the most intriguing training camp battle of the summer, the Chicago Bears have a fascinating competition at defensive end. At one spot, Akiem Hicks is cemented as a starter after a spectacular 2016 season. The other end spot is wide open and should make for a compelling watch.
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The battle starts with second-year DE Jonathan Bullard. Bullard was the Bears third round pick last season and the Bears expected Bullard to have an impact as a rookie. That didn’t happen. Bullard struggled and was even deactivated for a game late in the season. Bullard looked good in the preseason, but once the games mattered, he didn’t get the job done.
Bullard has worked hard this offseason and coaches like what they’ve seen. Bullard will be given every opportunity to succeed this year as the Bears definitely hope he develops and emerges as a solid end opposite Hicks. While the Bears want to see Bullard succeed, he certainly won’t be handed the keys to the car. He will have to earn the job and that won’t be easy.
Last year, most experts expected Bullard to eventually unseat veteran Mitch Unrein, but that never happened. Unrein is a decent end who is better suited as a rotational player than as a starter, but that’s exactly what he’s been for Vic Fangio’s defense the last two seasons. It’s highly unlikely that Unrein keeps that position again. He maximizes his talent, and he’s a favorite of head coach John Fox, but his skill set isn’t limited and there will most likely be better options at end this year than Unrein.
The player in this competition that has shown the most on NFL Sundays is Jaye Howard. Howard is a great run defender that can also disrupt the pocket. He had a great season in 2015 playing both end and nose for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs gave him a multi-year contract, but after his 2016 season was marred by a hip injury that limited him to 8 games and the Chiefs parted ways with him at the end of the season.
Now Howard, on a one-year “prove it” deal with the Bears is out to prove he’s healthy and ready to make an impact up front once again. If Howard can stay on the field and plays at the level he did in 2015, the Bears will have themselves a steal this season and it would be hard to imagine anyone else starting opposite Hicks. However, if Howard is still slowed by hip issues and isn’t the same player he once was, that is going to open up the competition.
One last player to keep an eye on during training camp is Roy Robertson-Harris. RRH was a UDFA last season and fans and analysts thought the Bears might have a steal. RRH is long, strong and athletic and tried out at outside linebacker last season before he was stashed on the non-football injury list and missed the season.
RRH has bulked up and the Bears will now try him at defensive end. The Bears still believe they might have found a diamond in the rough and if he performs well he could absolutely make the 53-man roster. However, I’m guessing the Bears hope they can sneak him on the practice squad to at least start the season and go from there.
You wouldn’t expect the Bears to keep more than six defensive linemen on the opening 53-man roster. Eddie Goldman and Hicks have two of those positions. It’s almost impossible to believe the Bears would part ways with Bullard after just one season. If Howard is healthy, he will certainly take a roster spot as well. That leaves two positions left. The Bears will most likely keep a backup nose tackle (John Jenkins, CJ Wilson), unless they think Howard can play that role as well, and that means that Unrein and RRH will be battle for the last active roster spot on the team.