He's not a household name, and most likely never will be, but the Chicago Bears are going to make the most out of defensive lineman Mitch Unrein this season.
Unrein played four seasons under John Fox in Denver and signed with the Bears in Week 3 last year. He was slowly worked into the defensive line rotation and eventually took over as starter late in the season.
Between Weeks 11-15, Unrein tallied 13 total tackles and 1.0 sack, showing himself to be an extremely dependable run defender in the process. He was graded as the best defensive end on the team last season by Pro Football Focus, tallying 14 run stops and 10 QB hurries in just 386 snaps played.
The Bears liked what they saw from Unrein last year and signed him to a two-year, $2.26 million contract this off-season, which is a healthy step up from the veteran minimum. The contract shows the confidence the coaching staff and front office have in Unrein to produce at a starter's level.
That carried over to this off-season, where Unrein worked with the first team in base 3-4 sets alongside Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks. Unrein has just one career sack, so he comes off the field on passing downs but his presence on first down and in short-yardage situations will be important to the Bears this year.
“Mitch Unrein’s done a nice job for us," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Just playing tough in there and playing smart. He’s been doing well for us.”
A lunch-pail, throwback player, Unrein is being overlooked as a key part of Chicago's run defense this year. At 6-4, 306, he doesn't have the same massive size as Goldman and Hicks - who both play near 330 pounds - but Unrein takes a back seat to no one in terms of strength, physicality and toughness.
In the trenches, Unrein can sink his hips and shed blocks using his upper-body power. With Goldman and Hicks commanding double teams, Unrein is going to get a lot of one-on-one opportunities, and that's where he's at his best.
He's never going to roll up 7-8 sacks but Unrein is important to the Bears in 2016 because he does the little things well and he's not afraid to get dirty inside.
"He's a real steady performer. A professional," Fox said late last year. "He’s smart and tough and that goes a long way."
Unrein also adds value on special teams, as he's one of the team's two wedge players on kickoff return. In addition, he served as the club's goal-line fullback last season and was on the field for seven red-zone snaps as a lead blocker.
"He's a guy who is going to have a lot of different roles," said Fox. "He’s helped us in kickoff return, he’s helped that area of our kicking game, and he plays goal-line offense."
Hicks is the big free-agent name and Goldman is the former second-round pick but don't be surprised if Unrein ends up having the biggest impact for Chicago's run defense this season, while also sprinkling in value in the other two phases of the game.