Akiem Hicks, who has been the Bears’ defensive MVP since joining them in 2016, believes his crew can ascend to new heights after finishing 10th in total yards allowed last year.
“I think our defense has a good foundation and just keep building on that and getting better,” Hicks said. “Top 10 last year, looking for top five.”
A lot of that will depend on the continued excellence of the burly 6-foot-5, 336-pound lineman.
Hick is the only Bears defender to start all 16 games in each of the past two seasons, and his combined 15½ sacks are No. 1 on team, even though he’s known more for his ability to throttle the run game.
Hicks is the left end in the Bears’ base 3-4, and he usually moves inside in passing situations, so he’s rarely off the field.
Only nine NFL defensive linemen played more snaps than Hicks with 899 last year, which accounted for 85 percent of the Bears’ total defensive plays, according to Football Outsiders. In 2016, Hicks played 930 defensive snaps, 86.5 percent of the Bears’ total.
Despite his contributions, Hicks has yet to be recognized with a Pro Bowl berth, and neither have his defensive teammates. But if the defense takes another step forward as a group, individual honors are likely to follow.
“Some have deserved it in the past,” said Hicks, who if he wasn’t alluding to himself should have been. “But it’s a part of the game. Sometimes it boils down to who is the most popular.
“One of my personal favorites for the Pro Bowl this year is (outside linebacker Leonard) Floyd. It’s his time. It’s his time to bounce back and take over and be the type of rusher that I know he can be.”
Floyd has 11½ sacks in his first two seasons, but he’s missed 10 games because of injuries. If he’s healthy for an entire season, double-digit sacks are a reasonable expectation.
The Bears also need third-year defensive end Jonathan Bullard to make a move this year. He has shown only flashes in the two years since the Bears drafted him in the third round (72nd overall). But with last year’s starter Mitch Unrein signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s Bullard’s job to lose.
“There’s no question in my mind that he has the talent,” Hicks said of the 6-3 Bullard, who has bulked up to 296 pounds. “One thing that he’s picked up as of late, and last year as well, is just his work ethic. I think that he now knows what it means to be in the NFL.
“You can be here today and gone tomorrow. So you’ve got to be able to put your best foot forward at any moment, and I think that he’s ready to take on that position.”
With Eddie Goldman at nose tackle, the Bears’ D-line can be special if Bullard can play with more consistency at the DRE spot opposite Hicks.
While the Bears’ offense will spend the off-season and preseason learning new coach Matt Nagy’s scheme, the defense should continue to evolve seamlessly because Nagy rehired coordinator Vic Fangio to continue the impressive work he has done the previous three years.
Most of the names on defense remain the same, so they’re familiar with Fangio’s scheme. And the coordinator has a clear idea of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
“I think we’re going to be even more tailored to our personnel, honestly,” Hicks said. “Just (Fangio) knowing what guys are good at, and I think that’s going to be a benefit for us.”
• Twitter: @BobLeGere