Of all the tips and advice given to Nick Kwiatkoski by veteran inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, one stands out above the rest in the mind of the rookie linebacker.
“’Just be ready, no matter what happens,’” Kwiatkoski said of Freeman’s counsel. “’You can’t really control things so just stay on top of the game and be ready for anything.’”
Well, “anything” has happened, ironically perhaps, in the form of Freeman incurring a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Now the Bears and Kwiatkoski will find out how well the “be ready” advice took root.
Kwiatkoski is slotted as the starting inside linebacker alongside Danny Trevathan — in none other than Freeman’s spot. It marks the second time that Kwiatkoski will be called upon to step into the breach, having started at Dallas when Trevathan was injured.
That was a difficult situation. Kwiatkoski had missed virtually all of training camp and preseason with a hamstring injury, then was dropped into the starting lineup against an offense ranked No. 3 in yardage and No. 4 in points under rookie phenom quarterback Dak Prescott.
“I think the few snaps that the preseason and regular season, his first game in the regular season wasn’t so good,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “But the snaps since then have been good. He’s been getting practice time. He missed most of camp, if not all of it, so the practice has been accumulating for him so I think he’ll be ready to go.”
Kwiatkoski played 18 snaps (26 percent) that game, made a tackle but was effective enough to rate added work the following week in the win over Detroit. His playing time jumped to 45 snaps (71 percent). Then Trevathan returned and was paired with Freeman, the team’s two leading tacklers.
Against the Giants he played no defensive snaps but was in for 21 on special teams, where he has made two solo tackles this season.
“The beginning of the season it definitely set me back for the first couple games,” Kwiatkoski said. “Since then I’ve been working my way back. Even when I was out I tried to stay mentally in the game and stay on top of things.”
While Freeman had emerged as a leader in the defensive huddle, Trevathan is projected to resume that role. Kwiatkoski’s role will be dictated in some measure by down and distance since he is not a member of nickel pass-rush packages. Still… .
“I just think he’s grown since the start of the season, since he’s started practicing,” Fangio said. “Prior to his [hamstring] injury he was struggling learning everything, fitting it all together. I think he’s gotten past that point. I think he’s got a better understanding of what we’re doing and what he has to do. We’ll find out.”
Kwiatkoski right now has the distinction of being the first of the three players the Bears selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft while Prescott sat by his phone waiting for a call the Cowboys would finally make (using a compensatory pick, no less).
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But the Bears have struck gold with fourth-round linebackers, most notably in 1999 when they landed Warrick Holdman and Rosevelt Colvin, the eventual outside linebackers flanking Brian Urlacher, Colvin going on to win two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.
Hall of Fame linebackers Harry Carson and Charles Haley were once fourth-rounders as well.
But Kwiatkoski, a teammate of Bears receiver Kevin White at West Virginia, obviously is thinking more of the lessons imparted by the man he’s replacing for the time being.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Kwiatkoski said. “Jerrell is a great player, quarterback of the defense. Just got to keep it moving now. It doesn’t stop for anyone.”