There is little doubt that Bears Pro Bowl starters Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller – with breakout seasons earning them multiple honors – were the focal point of the team’s top-ranked defense last season.
And on a regular basis, as analysts, media and fans looked elsewhere for more to excite them, most eyes landed on Leonard Floyd, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan and Prince Amukamara.
All of whom left the rest of the defensive line to often toil in obscurity.
But for those of you who failed to notice them, you might want to consider the possibility you’re missing a heck of a show.
Talk to Bears defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, and he’ll spell it out for you.
“Absolutely, it all starts up front,” he said. “I mean, we’re the first level of defense. If they get past us, it’s the linebackers, they get past them it’s the secondary, but at the end of the day, the best pass coverage is the best rush.
“It all works together. You know, the rush and the coverage all work together. Same thing in the run game. We’ve got to knock people back. We’ve got to get off blocks. We’ve got to make plays, and so at the end of the day, it takes all 11 guys to do that. But in my opinion, it always starts up front.”
Hicks is unique because it’s rare for an interior lineman to make as many splash plays as he does, making him a first-time Pro Bowler, and he’ll be the first to tell you that his linemates doing a lot of the dirty work up front is one of his greatest assets.
A number of scouts around the league rate Eddie Goldman as one of the best pure nose tackles in the game, and Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols are among the most versatile.
Rodgers spelled out why that versatility is so important.
“You don’t want a bunch of guys that are 6-5, 330 pounds, and you don’t want a bunch of guys that are 6-5, 290 pounds. You’ve got to be able to move pieces around because you don’t know what you’ll need them for. What you try to do is get a different, a good collection of good football players with different body types so it’s not just the same guy going against the same offensive lineman all the time.
“I think all of them are versatile and flexible. I think what Roy does is when he plays the nose position, it’s mostly in passing situations, so it’s not like, ‘OK, we’re going to put him [in] to handle double teams, but he has versatility. You know Akiem has versatility. Bilal has versatility and agility. Eddie has played some spots along the line. They all have – and we train them that way.”
All have taken completely different paths to the Bears: Hicks was a journeyman before finding his third team, Goldman a second-round pick, Jonathan Bullard drafted in the third round, Nichols a fifth-rounder and Robertson-Harris an undrafted rookie free agent.
Robertson-Harris said he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“At this point in my career, I’m glad I wasn’t drafted, because you know being drafted is kind of a hype from what I’ve seen. But I like that I’m undrafted, because I have a better story. I can say that I came from the bottom and came from a small school and went undrafted, and I’m still in the league this long.”
More than just in the league this long, Robertson-Harris and Bullard are both in contract years this season with a shot at big paydays if they produce.
Not to worry, because it sounds as if there’s nowhere Robertson-Harris would rather be.
“This is the best experience I’ve had. I haven’t been on a team better than this, so I’m definitely enjoying this right now.
“It challenges me every day just to be the best player I can be.”
What’s the most intriguing piece of all this?
It seems almost certain that in the cases of each of these guys, with the possible exception of Hicks, their best football still is in front of them.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at harkush@profootballweekly, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.