Emerging Bears DL Expected to Overtake Veteran for Starting Spot

Vince Carbonneau
May 27, 2024  (4:03 PM)

Ryan Poles
Photo credit: ESPN

Emerging Bears DT Zacch Pickens Poised for a Breakout Season

The upcoming NFL season holds significant promise for Chicago Bears defensive tackle Zacch Pickens. Now entering his second year, the 24-year-old Pickens played all 17 games in his rookie season, primarily in a rotational role. Despite playing only 25% of Chicago's defensive snaps in 2024,'s Gregg Rosenthal surprisingly predicts that Pickens will start over veteran Andrew Billings in his latest 53-man roster projection.
«The defensive line is the biggest worry,» Rosenthal wrote on May 21. «The Bears need their 2023 draft picks (second-rounder Gervon Dexter Sr. and third-rounder Zacch Pickens) to step up at defensive tackle.»
Rosenthal envisions Dexter starting alongside Pickens, omitting the seasoned Billings from the starting lineup.
Pickens Starting Over Billings Would Be a Major Upset
Billings, 29, was a staple on the left side of the Bears' line last year, starting all 17 games. His performance earned him a two-year, $8.5 million contract extension from general manager Ryan Poles midway through the 2023 season, with over $5 million guaranteed according to Over the Cap. Given his experience and recent contract, it would be surprising to see Pickens leapfrog Billings.
Billings has an impressive resume, with 84 games and 68 starts over six seasons. Last year, he recorded 27 tackles (three for loss), two quarterback hits, and 21 hurries according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). In comparison, Pickens had 20 tackles (one for loss), 0.5 sacks, two QB hits, a forced fumble, a pass defensed, and six hurries. While Pickens showed potential, he will need to outperform Billings in training camp to secure a starting role.
Expectations for Year 2 from Bears Defensive Coaches
Last year, Pickens focused on learning the nose tackle position, playing 181 snaps in the B gap and 54 in the A gap. This focus is expected to continue this season. Dexter, who also showed promise with 16 hurries and nine QB hits, primarily played between the offensive guard and tackle, with some snaps over the tackle.
As training camp approaches, it will be fascinating to see how Pickens and Dexter are deployed. Head coach Matt Eberflus and his staff have high expectations.
«I want to see polished fundamentals,» new Bears defensive coordinator Eric Washington said about Dexter and Pickens during rookie minicamp. «I want to see things I know will allow them to be as disruptive and as efficient with their rush fundamentals as possible. We're talking footwork, alignment adjustments based on the down and distance, and situational awareness.»
Both Pickens and Dexter will have opportunities to establish themselves on the defensive line. Whether Pickens can unseat Billings remains uncertain, making the competition for the starting left defensive tackle spot one of the most intriguing battles in the Bears' training camp. Stay tuned.
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MAY 27   |   50 ANSWERS
Emerging Bears DL Expected to Overtake Veteran for Starting Spot

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