Nick Kwiatkoski

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

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.

The five Bears players impacted the most by the NFL Draft

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The five Bears players impacted the most by the NFL Draft

Akiem Hicks isn't the biggest fan of the NFL Draft for the reasons that plenty of veteran players across the NFL would offer. 

"I don’t like the draft, dude," Hicks said earlier this month. "I always like to see the same faces. I’m superstitious, but I also like things to stay the same to an extent. So I like to see the same faces and have that camaraderie already built up with the guys and you just have to bring that together and do it even better. But it’s inevitable, there’s going to be change. Guys are going to come in and they have to assimilate and make our defense better.”

The Bears drafted at least three players (linebacker Roquan Smith, offensive lineman James Daniels and wide receiver Anthony Miller) who could be Week 1 starters. That means three veterans will lose their starting roles, though. So who will be impacted the most by the players drafted by Ryan Pace over the weekend?

WR Kevin White

The addition of Miller in the second round probably doesn’t change White’s position on the depth chart, which likely is behind Allen Robinson at the “X” outside receiver spot. But what adding Miller does for White is take even more pressure off the fourth-year receiver, at least as it relates to how badly the Bears need him to produce in 2018. The Bears can afford to bring White along slowly and don’t need him to be a focal point in their offense, as he would’ve been in 2017, and it feels like whatever the 2015 first-round pick produces will be a bonus. 

As for White’s future, the expectation is the Bears will decline his fifth-year option this week, making him a free agent after the season. If he’s good, he’ll play — as was the case with Kyle Fuller a year ago — and can set himself up for a nice payday, either from the Bears or another team. If he’s injured or struggles to re-gain the form that made him a top-10 pick three years ago, then he won’t get much playing time and will face an uncertain future after the season. 

OL Cody Whitehair

It was perhaps a little surprising that Pace, only a few hours after drafting Daniels 39th overall, said the Bears would begin working with their second-round pick as a guard, not a center — the position at which he played so well in college. But it was more of a nod to Whitehair’s play at center over the last two years than anything else and not immediately be bumped off that position by a draft pick. 

The Bears, though, will cross-train Daniels at center, and Harry Hiestand could ultimately decide the best offensive line combination has Whitehair at left guard and Daniels at center. The versatility both Whitehair and Daniels have is a plus; the downside is the Whitehair got off to a slow start to 2017 after being shuffled around the offensive line quite a bit prior to the season. Perhaps the best practice here would be to settle on Whitehair and Daniels’ positions as early as possible in training camp. 

LB Nick Kwiatkoski

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio values Kwiatkoski, so even though the Bears drafted a pair of inside linebackers, he’ll still see playing time this fall. Perhaps Kwiatkoski becomes this year’s version of Christian Jones, as in a solid inside linebacker who can play outside. But with Danny Trevathan having not played a full 16-game season since 2013, having Kwiatkoski as a depth piece will carry plenty of value. 

DL Jonathan Bullard

Presumably, the second defensive end spot in Fangio’s base 3-4 defense will be Bullard’s to lose heading into training camp. Roy Robertson-Harris could make a push for that spot, as could fifth-round pick Bilal Nichols. Competition will be good for this position, since Bullard deserves a shot to start in Year 3 but hasn’t shown enough in his first two seasons to be handed that prominent of a role. 

"There’s no question in my mind that he has the talent," Hicks said of Bullard. "One thing that he’s picked up as of late and last year as well is just his work ethic. I think that he now knows what it means to be in the NFL. You can be here today and gone tomorrow. So you’ve got to be able to put your best foot forward at any moment and I think that he’s ready to take on that position.”

QB Mitch Trubisky

Barring a surprise, the Bears are done making significant additions to their offense, with everything else from here on out likely being undrafted free agent signings and players brought in for tryouts. In short: The pieces that are around Trubisky now are likely the ones that’ll be around him on at Lambeau Field the night of Sept. 9. While Pace said he won’t ever be satisfied with the players he’s brought in, consider who he’s added since the start of free agency, among others:

Allen Robinson
Taylor Gabriel
Trey Burton
Chase Daniel
Bennie Fowler
Earl Watford
James Daniels
Anthony Miller

That’s five projected starters (Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, Daniels, Miller), a backup quarterback who knows Nagy’s offense (Daniel) and two depth pieces (Fowler, Watford). Now, it’s incumbent on Trubisky to take the next step in his development and make all these additions pay off for Pace and the Bears. 

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

While most of the focus this offseason has been on the Bears’ re-vamped offense, Vic Fangio's group returns almost all of its starters from last year's group, which ranked 10th in total defense and a respectable 14th in defensive DVOA. But Fangio doesn't want to settle for just a "solid" or "good" defense in 2018, as he explained back in January: 

"We were 5-11," Fangio said. "If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there, a lot, and we need to do that."

The Bears will enter 2018 with a few standouts on this side of the ball, most notably Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller. But those players still have room for improvement, too, as do guys like Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Bullard, among others. 

That being said, the NFL Draft later this month will likely see the Bears add a number of players to Fangio's defense. So with that in mind, what does the current depth chart look like, and does that provide any clues about the direction in which Ryan Pace will go come late April?

Defensive end

1. Akiem Hicks
2. Roy Roberston-Harris

1. Jonathan Bullard

As things stand, the Bears at least need one more reserve defensive lineman to slide behind and/or compete with Bullard, the team’s 2016 third-round pick who showed flashes of starting to “get it” in Fangio’s defense last year. Mitch Unrein’s departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was somewhat surprising, given how highly Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers spoke of his play.

But let’s not confuse a defensive end opposite Hicks as a major “need,” given that Bullard in Year 3 should be better and, for as well-regarded as Unrein was, he only played 48 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2017. Using a mid- or late-round pick on a defensive end may make sense later this month. 

Defesive tackle

1. Eddie Goldman
2. Rashaad Coward

Perhaps the Bears look to add a backup beyond Coward, who only played in one game last year, though John Jenkins — Goldman’s primary backup — was inactive for half of the season. 

But the biggest question here is when Goldman and the Bears will agree to a contract extension. The Bears have the cap space to sign Goldman to a second contract, and his pairing with Akiem Hicks was the top strength of Fangio’s defense in 2017. There’s no reason to think that partnership will be anything but excellent again going forward. 

“We haven’t got to that yet,” Pace said when asked about an extension for Goldman. “We’re aware of it, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

Outside linebacker

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving

1. Aaron Lynch
2. Sam Acho

No position is a bigger red-line need than outside linebacker. There’s plenty of boom-or-bust potential here: If Floyd can stay healthy and take a step forward in his third year in the NFL, and if Lynch seizes his opportunity on a prove-it contract in a familiar defense, the Bears could have a solid pass rush in 2018. But those are two massive ifs. 

Floyd has missed 10 games his first two years in the league, and even when he’s been healthy he’s averaging one sack every 97 snaps (for some context, Vic Beasley is averaging one sack per 69 snaps in his three-year career; Pernell McPhee averaged one sack per 81 snaps from 2011-2017). The Bears drafted Floyd to be a pass rushing difference-maker; so far, he hasn’t been that. 

Lynch notched six sacks his rookie year in Fangio’s San Francisco 49ers defense, and followed that up with 6 1/2 sacks in 2015. But a substance abuse suspension and an ankle injury limited Lynch to just seven games in 2016, with only 1 1/2 sacks to his name. His 2017 wasn’t much better, with one sack in seven games as he had some conditioning and weight issues. 

“This free agency we didn't feel like there was a ton of outside linebackers but Aaron Lynch stood out in a number of ways,” Pace said. “He definitely has the traits to be a very productive pass rusher, you see signs of it and he's very comfortable in Vic's scheme. Vic knows him inside and out so to get him here on kind of a one-year contract kind of in a motivated state, we're excited about that. We think there's a lot of upside in that transaction.”

The Bears will need to draft at least one edge rusher, maybe multiple to try to fill out this position. Acho provides solid depth and leadership, hitting on a productive outside linebacker in the draft is a must for this group. 

Inside linebacker

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu

1. Nick Kwiatkoski
2. Jonathan Anderson

Christian Jones’ departure to the Detroit Lions felt sort of like Unrein’s to Tampa, as he too was a solid piece appreciate by the coaching staff and front office. That leaves, for now, Kwiatkoski to be the starter next to Trevathan. The Bears could certainly do worse, though Kwiatkoski missed two games in 2016 and five in 2017, and Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013. 

So there’s a need here for at least a backup, and potentially a starting-caliber player. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith both could be options with the eighth overall pick, as could drafting an inside linebacker with the Bears’ second-round pick. Or the Bears could opt for more of a reserve player profile and draft an inside linebacker in the fourth round (where Kwiatkoski was picked in 2016) or the fifth round. Inside linebacker is in a better position depth-wise than outside linebacker, but there’s still a need here. 

Outside cornerback

1. Kyle Fuller
2. Marcus Cooper

1. Prince Amukamara
2. Jonathan Mincy

Nickel cornerback

1. Bryce Callahan
2. Cre’von LeBlanc

The Bears reportedly have hosted or will host Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson for pre-draft visits, but don’t read too much into those. While the Bears guaranteed Fuller and Amukamara a combined $36 million in free agency (and will almost certainly wind up committing at least $37.5 million against the cap for Fuller over the next three years), they’d be foolish to not use their allocated pre-draft visits on two of the best cornerbacks in this year’s draft class. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could be a corner or a safety, will also reportedly be hosted by the Bears for a visit. 

While Amukamara and Fuller proved to be a solid cornerback tandem in 2017, they only combined for two interceptions, both of which were Fuller’s and came in the final month of the season. Drafting a playmaking cornerback would be a surprise — Fitzpatrick makes the most sense out of that group given he can play anywhere in the secondary — but it wouldn’t be totally out of left field, either. 

Maintaining the status quo of Amukamara and Fuller, with Cooper the backup and then a cornerback drafted maybe with a mid-round pick would make plenty of sense, though. Callahan remains a restricted free agent, but seems likely to return in 2018. 

“To have continuity at the two starting corner positions you know is important, and the safety position really too,” Pace said. “(For a) top 10 defense to maintain that continuity in the secondary was huge for us and it's really two separate moves. Independently getting Prince back and getting Kyle back, we feel good about our secondary. I don't think you can ever have enough corners, or enough pass rushers, but we feel good about that starting lineup for sure.”

Safety

1. Adrian Amos
2. DeAndre Houston-Carson

1. Eddie Jackson
2. Deon Bush

Pace’s quote above applies here — for the first time in a long time, the Bears can confidently say they’re comfortable with continuity at the safety position. Amos and Jackson played well off each other last year, and the loss of Quintin Demps to a season-ending injury in Week 3 didn’t negatively impact this unit. DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deon Bush are both mainstays on special teams — Houston-Carson played 64 percent of the Bears’ special teams snaps last year, while Bush played 53 percent of them. 

Perhaps there’s room for a safety to be a late-round pick, but that would be just for depth or special teams contributions. 

Special teams

Placekicker: Cody Parkey
Punter: Pat O’Donnell
Long snapper: Patrick Scales
Captain: Sherrick McManis

The Bears only guarantee O’Donnell $500,000 of his one-year, $1.5 million deal, according to Spotrac, suggesting they could look to bring in some competition for him via a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. Scales was brought back after missing 2017 with a torn ACL. McManis was an important player to re-sign, and will be back for his seventh year in Chicago. 

“He’s one of our best special teams player,” Pace said. “He’s a valuable depth player on defense. But then also from a very critical standpoint, the intangibles he brings and the leadership he brings on a relatively young team. He’s a guy who has some skins on the wall, is a productive special teams player but also has excellent makeup.”