The Chicago Bears selected inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the expectation that he'll become an immediate starter and impact player on defense. But, was there a need at inside linebacker?
According to Pro Football Focus, Nick Kwiatkoski, who Chicago selected in the fourth round of 2016's draft, was a standout performer last season. He ranked third in the NFL among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage and was fourth-best in pass-rush productivity.
Kwiatkoski also wasn’t tagged for a missed tackle against the run all season. He still has to share time on the field with Danny Trevathan and newly-drafted Roquan Smith, but should be able to capitalize on a great sophomore year after being drafted in the fourth round from West Virginia in 2016. Overall, Kwiatoski was graded as the NFL’s 12th best inside linebacker, higher than both Spaight and Hitchens.
His 21.0 pass-rush productivity ranked fourth and came on the heels of his rookie season in which he ranked 10th in the same category in 2016.
Kwiatkoski didn't receive much fanfare last season but the analytics speak for themselves. He started six games (appeared in 11) and registered career highs in tackles (34) and sacks (two). He's an ascending player but his growth is likely to be stunted by Smith's presence.
Chicago could view Kwiatkoski as the heir to Danny Trevathan's starting job. The Bears can move on from Trevathan with little consequence at season's end. His dead cap number drops to just $1.25 million in 2019. Kwiatkoski will be in the final year of his contract that season (2019), and if he hasn't earned a starting job by then, he's a near lock to sign elsewhere when his rookie contract expires.
Kwiatkoski has proven he can produce when given a chance to play, something 31 other teams have certainly taken notice of.
If the Chicago Bears want to make a real run at the playoffs in 2018, the offensive line will have to do its part by keeping QB Mitch Trubisky upright. The offense is expected to be more pass-heavy under coach Matt Nagy and will depend on Trubisky having time in the pocket to go through his progressions and find the open target.
New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand should help that cause. He's universally praised as one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport and will be charged with getting a better effort from a unit that ended last season ranked in the bottom-third of pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.
19. CHICAGO BEARS
2017 pass-blocking efficiency: 77.9
Best individual PBE: Josh Sitton, 97.4
Because of several crippling injuries, nine different players saw at least 100 pass-block snaps for the Bears in 2017. They gave up 152 pressures on 536 passing plays. The top performance came from left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who enjoyed the best season of his career and allowed just 24 pressures all season. Heading into the 2018 campaign, rookie guard James Daniels is penciled in to fill the shoes of the recently departed pass-blocking star Josh Sitton. Daniels performed well in pass protection during his final college season, allowing just 10 pressures on 371 pass-blocking snaps at Iowa.
The Bears will be without last season's top pass-protector, Josh Sitton, who was let go by GM Ryan Pace this offseason and signed with the Dolphins.
Pass protection was once all about the play of the offensive tackles, but with the NFL's interior defensive linemen evolving into disruptive forces up the middle, guard play will be nearly as important. A healthy Kyle Long is critical. Chicago can't afford growing pains from James Daniels, either. Cody Whitehair returns to full-time center duties, a role he excelled at during his rookie season.
Charles Leno should provide reliable play at left tackle. Bobby Massie remains a wildcard, but with little depth behind him, the Bears can do nothing more than hope his bad reps are limited in 2018.
With Hiestand in the fold and a healthy Long ready to compete at a high level again, the Bears' offensive line should be much improved this season.