The Chicago Bears made substantial improvements to the defensive front seven last season yet the interior of the defensive line still needs work.
Akiem Hicks had 7.5 sacks last year and was a beast against the run. He's a foundation player who deserves a contract extension.
Yet beyond Hicks, there are a lot of questions. Eddie Goldman has been a solid nose tackle but he missed 10 games last year and the Bears did not have a viable replacement, resulting in a 27th-ranked run defense.
Beyond Hicks, there is no consistent pass rusher who can push the pocket in the face of opposing quarterbacks. Jonathan Bullard, last year's third-round pick, was supposed to be that player but he had a disappointing rookie year, which makes it hard to rely on him going forward.
For all those reasons, expect the Bears to be active in free agency to add depth along the interior of the defensive line. Let's break down the top options.
Kawann Short, Panthers (Age: 28)
Short (6-3, 315) is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. He's amassed 17 sacks and 4 forced fumbles the last two years combined. He can penetrate as a 3-technique on passing downs and he's even better against the run, which gives him value as a 5-technique in Chicago's base 3-4 defense. He also hasn't missed a single game during his four-year career. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, it appears very likely the Panthers will soon place the franchise tag on Short.
Calais Campbell, Cardinals (31)
Campbell has been one of the most consistent and durable defenders in the NFL throughout his nine-year career. He's missed just six total games due to injury and has recorded between 5.0-9.0 sacks in each season since 2009. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded Campbell the second best all-around defensive lineman last year, behind only Aaron Donald. He's also versatile, having played 5-technique, 3-technique and 4-3 defensive end during his career. Campbell will be 31 before the start of the season, so he could begin to decline at any time. He'll be a hot property in free agency and will command a hefty contract. He is still an elite player but given the Bears' desire to get younger, as well as his price tag, it's doubtful Campbell will be in Chicago next season.
Dontari Poe, Chiefs (27)
Poe dealt with a back injury for most of last season, which limited his effectiveness. When healthy, the 346-pounder one of the best run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL. He's only missed two games during his five-year career, so he's durable as well. He has just 2.5 sacks combined the last two years but he totaled 10.5 sacks in 2013 and 2014, so he can push the pocket on occasion. If the Bears really want to shore up the porous run defense, while also creating ideal depth at nose tackle, Poe would make a solid free-agent addition.
Johnathan Hankins, Giants (25)
Hankins tore his pectoral in 2015, which forced him to miss the final seven games of the season, and he never looked right last year. He played in all 16 games but he struggled at times. Still, Hankins is only 25 and had 7.0 sacks in 2014 when fully healthy. He can penetrate as a 3-technique and his 320-pound frame makes him a quality run stopper as well. Due to his down year in 2016, Hankins may come at a considerable discount, which could pay big dividends for the Bears.
Dominique Easley, Rams (25)
Easley (6-2, 285) is a very intriguing free agent. The former first-round pick had surgeries on both knees during his collegiate career at Florida. That reportedly resulted in some lasting damage and his knees will never improve going forward. Still, Easley was one of the most productive interior pass rushers on a per-snap basis in 2015, per PFF. He was inexplicably cut by the Patriots last off-season amid reports he didn't get along with his coaches and teammates, although none of that was ever confirmed. Easley played all 16 games for the Rams last season in a rotational, pass-rush role, and had 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. In that same role with the Bears, on a short-term, incentive-based deal, Easley makes a lot of sense.
Brandon Williams, Ravens (28)
The 340-pound Williams is a load to move and has anchored Baltimore's run defense the past four seasons. He hasn't missed a game since his rookie season in 2013 and typically throws in a few sacks for good measure each year. While he doesn't provide much on passing downs, Williams' value as a run stopper is worth considering.
Chris Baker, Redskins (29)
Baker is one of the better all-around 5-techniques in the NFL, one who can also play inside at defensive tackles on passing downs. He generated plenty of pressure in 2016 and has 9.5 sacks the last two years combined. He's also very strong against the run. He turns 30 in October but Baker still has a few good years left in him.
Nick Fairley, Saints (28)
Fairley is a former first-round pick who has dealt with consistency problems throughout his six-year career. He's played for three different teams the past three seasons but he racked up 6.5 sacks in New Orleans last year, so he still has value on passing downs. At just 28 years old, Fairley is definitely worth a one-year contract.
Alan Branch, Patriots (32)
Branch is arguably the best run-stuffing nose tackle in the NFL. He has almost no value on passing downs but very few players in the league can fill multiple interior run lanes like Branch. He turned 32 in December, so age is a concern, but he still might be worth a one-year deal to help shore up Chicago's run defense.
Lawrence Guy, Ravens (27)
Guy has played for three teams during his five years in the NFL but he emerged as a quality starter for the Ravens the past two seasons. He has 5.5 sacks in 2015 and 2016 combined but his value comes against the run, where he's excellent. An experienced 3-4 5-technique, Guy would be an economical starting option for the Bears.
Bennie Logan, Eagles (27)
Logan is a very good run defender and he's only 27, so he checks off two important boxes for the Bears. He's not much of a pass rusher but the 315-pound Logan would immediately upgrade Chicago's run defense.
Abry Jones, Jaguars (25)
Sylvester Williams, Broncos (28)
Glenn Dorsey, 49ers (32)
Vance Walker, Broncos (30)
Earl Mitchell, Dolphins (29)
Tony McDaniel, Seahawks (32)
Terrell McClain, Cowboys (29)
The Pick: Johnathan Hankins
Calais Campbell is the top option but it's unlikely the Bears will get into a bidding war for a front-seven player, considering the team's considerable needs at quarterback and in the secondary.
The torn pectoral Hankins suffered in 2015 will reduce his price tag on the open market, which would be great for the Bears. Hankins is only 25, so he fits the team's youth movement, and he's shown very good all-around production when healthy.
He's 320 pounds and can two-gap at the 5-technique position, while his 7.0 sacks in 2014 (and 3.0 sacks last year) show his potential on passing downs. Hankins fills needs for the Bears and won't cost an arm and a leg, making him the top free-agent option in Chicago.
If not Hankins, Dominique Easley or Nick Fairley would both make a solid Plan B on a short-term deal. In terms of adding a run stopper, Lawrence Guy would be a sneaky but very valuable addition who won't eat into the salary cap.