There is a lot to be excited about when you look at the 2017 Chicago Bears defense. The linebacking core is criminally underrated, the defensive backfield is full of young players with great potential, but there is a problem with the defensive line.
The problem isn’t defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and absolutely not defensive end Akiem Hicks, rather who is going to play opposite of him. The right end position was a weak spot in 2016. Mitch Unrein and Cornelius Washington saw plenty of action and played as expected, subpar. However, the biggest disappointment was rookie Jonathan Bullard.
Bullard was the Bears third-round pick in 2016 and showed a lot of promise in college. During his time at Florida he was quick off the ball, he was a smart player that seemed to know where the ball was going. Those traits seemed to disappear at the NFL level. Bullard had moments where he flashed his potential, but he seemed slow off the ball and got bullied at the line of scrimmage.
The young defensive ends performance was so poor he was a healthy scratch for two games last season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was straightforward when talking about Bullard, but thinks he may turn the corner.
“I don’t think he was quite ready for that last year, both physically or mentally,” Fangio told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Emotionally, he’s more ready. We’re hopeful that he does well.”
During the offseason Bullard made some changes to his routine. He took the Kevin White approach by changing his number to try and incite change, we will see if that route works for either.
More seriously, Bullard turned to former Bear and fellow Florida alumni Alex Brown for help. Bullard spent a majority of his offseason working out and training with Brown to pick his brain and try to improve his game. It’s not a bad choice for a mentor. Brown played eight seasons for the Bears and tallied 337 tackles, 43.5 sacks, 40 pass deflections and 13 forced fumbles. He was a main piece to the success of the 2006 Bears.
If Brown was able to improve Bullard’s game, this could be Bullard’s breakout year. Despite the defensive end position being thin in 2016 it’s been bolstered for 2017. Mitch Unrein is still with the team and while he isn’t an elite end, he’s was the Bears starter last year. Washington wasn’t re-signed and he is now with the Detroit Lions, but the Bears brought in Jaye Howard, who spent 2016 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Howard’s a stud. His play style fits well with the Bears, he’s a violent player that can set the edge and still get after the quarterback. 2016 was a down year for him; he finished the year with just one sack and ended up getting cut by the Chiefs, but a change of scenery may reinvent him.
Expect Howard to be the starter at the beginning of the season, but it’s very likely that won’t be the case at the end of the year. Expectations are high for Bullard and he will get some early shots to be an impact player. If he does well, as Fangio and head coach John Fox are expecting him too, he can quickly dethrone Howard.
If Bullard is able to live up to his “hype” the duo of Bullard and Hicks will be deadly. Hicks was a stud last season being one of the most consistent players on the roster. His game preparation and work ethic should be rubbing off on Bullard making him a much better all around player.
Keep an eye out for No. 90 this season, he might end up shocking you.
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