Nick Kwiatkoski Could Replace Jerrell Freeman in the Starting Lineup (Again) ... But He's Not the Only Option

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Nick Kwiatkoski Could Replace Jerrell Freeman in the Starting Lineup (Again) … But He’s Not the Only Option

Chicago Bears

When Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace sees a problem, he addresses it aggressively.

It doesn’t always work out as well as we’d like, but there’s something to be said about the way he goes about his business. For example, when the Bears’ middle linebackers were a problem in 2015, Pace plugged holes by signing Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, a pair of experienced starting inside linebackers who were still in their primes, to contracts in Chicago. But because the former played in just 13 games in two seasons (thanks to injuries and a pair of PED-related suspensions), the Bears released the 31-year-old linebacker.

To be sure, Chicago’s defense didn’t miss a beat without Freeman, finishing in the top-10 in scoring defense and total yards. But Freeman’s departure means the team has to find a new Week 1 starter for the first time since 2015. Luckily, Pace and the front office can look at viable in-house options and external possibilities to find a suitable replacement.

OPTION I: PROMOTE NICK KWIATKOSKI

Because Pace was really serious about shoring up the middle linebacker spot in 2016, the team used a fourth-round pick on Nick Kwiatkoski. Two seasons into his NFL career, Kwiatkoski has a leg up on replacing Freeman in the starting lineup. The West Virginia product has started 13 games in his first two seasons, filling in for Freeman and Trevathan when each has been sidelined. So it’s not as if thrusting him into the starting lineup would be a totally new experience.

Kwiatkoski earned an impressive 82.3 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017, which ranks him 17th among 91 qualifying linebackers. His best work has come in coverage, where his 79.6 grade checks in as the 21st best at his position. And Kwiatkoski’s 79.0 run defense grade isn’t too shabby either.

That’s pretty much Kwiatkoski’s game at this point in his career. He isn’t great in any one area, but he’s a productive player across the board.

(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

OPTION II: RE-SIGN CHRISTIAN JONES

Christian Jones’ Bears career started in 2014 and it says something that he has successfully made the transition from Mel Tucker’s defense and has thrived in Vic Fangio’s scheme. Jones has missed just one game in four years and has been a starter in 31 of the 62 games he has played in. Considering time missed by other linebackers due to injuries and suspensions, Jones has been a model of durability at the position. That should count for something.

Jones is an important special teams contributor who could also be a good, inexpensive stop gap who could slot into a familiar position in the Bears’ defense. His presence could allow the Bears to spend more freely at other positions of higher need.

It’s possible that re-signing Jones would set up for a camp battle between two capable starting linebackers, with the non-starter providing quality depth in a pinch. That’s a pretty good position for the Bears defense to be in without diving into the deep end of free agency.

OPTION III: EXPLORE FREE AGENCY

Should the Bears jump into the free agent waters, they might opt for a player familiar with their scheme.

NaVorro Bowman was a stud under Fangio when he was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Bowman was a First-Team All-Pro linebacker in 2011, 2012, and 2013 who made the Pro Bowl twice in that three year stretch. And while injuries kept him from reaching another level, a healthy Bowman was (and probably still can be) one of the league’s best inside linebackers. In what can be described as a successful bounce-back year in 2017, Pro Football Focus notes Bowman’s 33 run stops were tied for the seventh most among NFL linebackers. He will play 2018 in his age 30 season and could be a surprisingly nice fit.

Pro Football Focus’ free agent guide lists the Bears as the “best fit” for Giants free agent linebacker Keenan Robinson on a deal for the veteran’s minimum.

OPTION IV: THE DRAFT

Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds is a player who is coming into focus during mock draft season. Mel Kiper Jr.’s second mock draft was the most recent to Edmunds to the Bears with the eight pick. Edmunds recently earned a Brian Urlacher comp from evaluators because of his freakish size, speed, and athleticism. That athleticism and body type with Fangio’s coaching could make for a game-changing stud in the middle of the Bears’ defense.

The same could be said about Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who is a more traditional inside linebacker prospect. Smith jumped onto the national radar with his stellar performance down the stretch for the Bulldogs in the SEC title game and in the college football playoffs. According to Pro Football Focus’ data, Smith missed just one tackle in run defense in 2017.

South Carolina State’s Darius Leonard was impressive at the Senior Bowl and projects to be picked in the second or third round. Leonard was a tackling machine (113 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, eight sacks) who was also productive in pass defense (two interceptions, one pass breakup).


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Author: Luis Medina

Luis Medina is a Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at@lcm1986.