CHICAGO -- Veteran Chicago Bears players are reporting to Halas Hall on Tuesday to begin their COVID-19 intake testing to be cleared for training camp, but one fixture in the team's high-level defense won't be there.
Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, the linchpin of the run defense, will opt out of the 2020 season, according to NFL Network.
Goldman, a second-round pick in 2015 who signed a four-year, $42 million contract extension two summers ago, has been an elite player in the middle of the defense. His absence would create a void in the middle of the line and lead to more significant roles for Bilal Nichols and others.
The list of NFL players choosing to sit out the season over COVID-19 concerns is growing. ESPN reported that linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung are the fifth and sixth New England Patriots players to exercise that option.
Players have until Aug. 3 to opt out, and one general manager said Tuesday morning that "there are going to be more than we originally expected." Players opting out in a high-risk category will receive a $350,000 stipend and an accrued season. Players not in the high-risk category will receive a $150,000 stipend but will not accrue a season. The contracts of players in both categories will toll.
Goldman, 26, was scheduled to earn $4.75 million in base salary this season. He already has earned $17.35 million from his extension, and the contract that originally carried through 2022 now would run through 2023.
He started 15 games last season and has missed only two games in the last three seasons. His absence creates significant issues for general manager Ryan Pace and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. The Bears ranked ninth against the run last season (102 yards per game) after ranking first in 2018 (80 ypg). Goldman was on the field for 468 snaps last season (43.6%) and played 52.4% of the 2018 snaps.
"He is a premier nose tackle in the NFL," Bears defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said last month. "I don't think there's many players that are as good as him at the position he does. There's a big difference when he's not in the game and when he is in the game. I think that data would probably show you the same thing.
"He's definitely a guy that can take it to the next level in terms of national exposure. But nothing's going to surprise me from where he's at right now because he's been doing it for years. He just hasn't gotten the credit sometimes that other people have."
The Bears have gotten tremendous production from Rodgers' unit, and he has been credited with bringing out the best in his players. That includes Goldman, who took off at the start of his second season in 2016 and quickly emerged as one of the elite run-stuffing nose tackles in the league, a player who routinely commands double teams.
Rodgers and Pagano could lean more heavily on Nichols, who is entering a pivotal third season. John Jenkins is on the roster as a reserve nose tackle, and this development boosts his chances of making the roster and potentially playing in a rotation. The domino effect on the line could also involve Akiem Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris.
Nichols dealt with a broken right hand suffered in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos last year, and that hampered him in the first half of the season. Now he could be thrust into a more prominent role.
"When you're playing a position that utilizes your hands as much as we do, it takes some time," Rodgers said. "I broke my hand in May, almost in the same spot he broke his hand. He's playing football and going against 300-pound linemen. I'm picking up my 50-pound kids. That's a big difference right there.
"Bilal is working extremely hard, and some of the production he had as a rookie was very good. And some of the things he did in his second year were better, and then some things he can be better at. I have a lot of confidence in Bilal because he has a sparkle in his eye. He wants to be great, and he has lofty goals for himself. And I'm looking forward to seeing what he looks like when he comes back into training camp and gets going."
A handful of defensive linemen around the league have reportedly opted out, including Minnesota's Michael Pierce, Washington's Caleb Brantley, Houston's Eddie Vanderdoes, Denver's Kyle Peko and Buffalo's Star Lotulelei. It remains to be seen if the Bears will be in the market for another body in the middle of the defense. Damon Harrison and Demato Peko are experienced nose tackles who are currently unsigned.
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