The two best defensive tackles available in free agency may both be former Chicago Bears in Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols,.
Hicks is the most dominant interior presence among this year’s D-line crop, but his age – he’ll turn 33 in mid-November – and recent injury history – Hicks has played just 29 games over the last three seasons – will keep him from getting the big deal he’s looking for.
There are no top young studs available, but Nichols and the Bengals’ Larry Ogunjobi are the best prospects under the age of 28. Nichols won’t hit 26 until September.
Top available defensive linemen
Hicks: Hicks has been one of the top interior pass rushers and run stuffers in the game since arriving in Chicago in 2016, notching 31 sacks and 51 tackles for loss over the last six seasons. But injuries limited him to just five games in 2019 and just half a season last year. Turning 33, his age and injury history is a concern.
Ogunjobi: Ogunjobi was one of the main reasons the Bengals were one of the league’s most improved defenses last season, his first year in Cincinnati after four seasons with the Browns. His seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss all seemed to come at key moments in games. Turning 28 in June, he should find a nice three- or four-year deal.
Nichols: Nichols improved every season in four years with the Bears in spite of playing out of position as a five-technique in a 30 front, and he flashed big-play ability in 2021. He is ideally suited for the three-technique in a 40 front and some believe he has a very high ceiling there.
Quinton Jefferson: After a disappointing 2020 campaign with the Bills, Jefferson bounced back this season, starting all 17 games for the Raiders. He piled up 47 tackles, 4 ½ sacks, five tackles for loss and forced two fumbles. He is another guy with three-technique traits and won’t turn 29 until the end of March.
Ndamukong Suh: The best of the oldies-but-goodies, Suh is 35 but he hasn’t missed a game since 2011. And even after 164 straight starts and never missing a game do to injury – he was suspended Weeks 13 and 14 in 2011 – he is still highly productive with six sacks in each of the last two seasons and nine and seven tackles for loss, respectively.
Linval Joseph: Joseph will be 34 in October, but he can still fill two gaps all afternoon and stuff the run with the best of them.
Calais Campbell: He turns 36 the week before Labor Day. Campbell has lost half a step at least, but he can still play anywhere in a 30 or 40 front. He’s an outstanding leader and would fit for a year on a team ready to win right now.
Maliek Collins is a 27 year old with three-technique potential who notched nine tackles for loss last year in Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 with a struggling Houston defense. D.J. Jones just turned 27, and after starting 14 games for the 49ers in 2020, he started all 17 last season and notched 10 tackles for loss as a disruptive seam splitter and penetrator.
Austin Johnson is a late bloomer but coming off a huge contract year for the Giants with 72 tackles, 3 ½ sacks and six tackles for loss from the anchor or nose tackle.
Bears’ level of need
The Bears have some depth with Angelo Blackson, Khyiris Tonga and Mario Edwards Jr., but Hicks and Nichols were their two best. Nichols would be their best option at the three-technique, critical in head coach Matt Eberflus’ defense.
The team also reportedly decided to part ways with veteran defensive tackle Eddie Goldman on Friday.
Best fits for Bears
It’s pretty simple, Hicks and Nichols. If both get away, either Ogunjobi or Jones would look great in navy and orange.
It’s hard to imagine they won’t try and bring back Nichols. As nice as it would be to have Hicks back and for him to finish his career in Chicago, it seems unlikely as acrimonious as things got last year.
If they can’t retain either, it seems near certain they’d want to add at least one young vet.
Source: The Daily Chronicle