Young Bears DL Predicted to Unseat Veteran in Starting Lineup

Andrew Billings

Getty Defensive tackle Andrew Billings of the Chicago Bears started 17 games in 2023.

The upcoming NFL season will be a huge one for Chicago Bears defensive tackle Zacch Pickens.

Now entering Year 2, the 24-year-old Pickens appeared in all 17 games for the Bears as a rookie last year. He didn’t start, playing a rotational role in the middle. Considering Pickens played just 25% of Chicago’s defensive snaps in 2024, it’s a bit of a surprise that’s Gregg Rosenthal has the young DT pegged to start over incumbent starter 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 has Dexter starting opposite Pickens, with no mention of the veteran Billings.

Zacch Pickens Starting at DT Over Andrew Billings Would Be Huge Surprise

Billings, 29, started all 17 games for the Bears last year on the left side. He played so well general manager Ryan Poles signed him to a two-year, $8.5 million contract extension halfway through the 2023 regular season.

Over $5 million of that is guaranteed, according to Over the Cap. That’s one reason it would be surprising to see the Bears choose Pickens over Billings. Experience is another.

Billings has played in 84 games over his six seasons in the league, starting 68. In his 17 starts for the Bears last year, the veteran DT amassed 27 total tackles (three for loss) and two quarterback hits. He also racked up 21 hurries, per Pro Football Focus.

By contrast, Pickens finished with 20 total tackles (one for loss), 0.5 sacks, two QB hits, a forced fumble and a pass defensed in 17 games. PFF also has him logging six hurries. Pickens showed flashes of potential, to be sure, and if he can outperform Billings in training camp later this summer, he has a shot at starting. It’s a long shot, but it’s there.

Bears DC Eric Washington Hopes to See Leap From Young DTs in Year 2

Pickens focused solely on learning the nose tackle position last year, playing 181 snaps in the B gap and 54 in the A gap. That likely won’t change this year. Like Pickens, Dexter, who finished with 16 hurries and nine QB hits last year, also played the bulk of his snaps between the offensive guard and tackle (328), but unlike Pickens, he also lined up over the tackle some (71 snaps).

It will be interesting to see how the young duo of DTs line up once the pads come on. Regardless, head coach Matt Eberflus and company have made it clear what they will be looking for.

“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 when we’re in an obvious passing situation. It’s more awareness and just a great coordination of fundamentals that I know are going to give them a chance to really win that particular rep and down.”

It’s clear both Pickens and Dexter will have opportunities to carve out niches for themselves on Chicago’s defensive line. What’s unclear is whether Pickens can unseat Billings. That competition for starting left DT promises to be one of the team’s most intriguing. Stay tuned.

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