As the Bears’ attention turns to 2018, there are plenty of players on this team who will play key roles next year, no matter who’s coaching this group. Mitchell Trubisky, Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan and Eddie Jackson are lay-ups among that group of sure-to-be returning players.
But perhaps second-year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski should be part of that discussion, too, as he looks to continue to finish 2017 strong Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Kwiatkoski led the Bears with seven tackles against the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Eve, but his impact was greater than that. He pressed DeShone Kizer a few times, and one of his runs at the mistake-prone Browns quarterback forced a bad throw that was picked off by cornerback Bryce Callahan. Kwiatkoski recorded sacks in back-to-back games against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in November, too, and has played more than 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in the last three weeks.
“I think he’s feeling more comfortable playing more and more,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I thought he played with a little more confidence and a little faster than he had been as far as decision-making and recognizing things, so I think he’s improving.”
The Bears were confident Kwiatkoski could successfully fill in for Jerrell Freeman when the veteran linebacker tore his pec back in Week 1, but Kwiatkoski suffered a pec injury of his own Week 2 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bears were able to avoid placing Kwiatkoski on injured reserve, though he missed five full weeks due to the injury.
Kwiatkoski said he didn’t think the injury affected him physically after he was cleared, but there were mental hurdles for him to clear to trust his body again.
“It was definitely kind of choppy with the injury,” Kwiatkoski said. “… But overall, I feel good about the year. There’s definitely things I could’ve done throughout the year, plays I could’ve made. But that’s every year. It was a good experience. Gaining the experience was great for me. Moving forward now, learn from it and continue.”
The common theme for Kwiatkoski’s growth in 2017 was gaining experience, which then was stunted by only playing one defensive snap between Weeks 3-8. But the Bears were impressed with how he responded from that injury, and no matter what their defense looks like next year with the potential departure of Vic Fangio, Kwiatkoski should play an important role in it.
“I know what type of person he is,” fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’m just happy his mind is clear and he’s focused on himself and getting better each day. He’s learning the plays and knows how to play, but he sees a lot faster now. That’s what you want to grow as a second-year linebacker, and I think he’s on the right road to be one of the greats out here.”