In 2016, Bears GM Ryan Pace jumped at the opportunity to turn the inside linebacker position into a strength by signing free agents Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, while also adding Nick Kwiatkoski in the draft.
Two years later, the Bears have already made one important decision about the future of the position with one more to come. Freeman, who has started in Week 1 next to Trevathan in each of the last two years, will be seeking a job elsewhere after his recent release.
How the Bears replace Freeman in the starting lineup is the front office’s next big call. It’s not as if Chicago’s defense isn’t used to playing without Freeman, who missed 13 games in his two seasons with the team due to injuries or suspension. But when Freeman was on the field, he was a productive tackling machine who graded out as one of the league’s best linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.
Let’s dive into the middle of the Bears’ defense and see what’s about to go down.
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Danny Trevathan is in the third year of a four-year deal he signed in 2016 when he and Jerrell Freeman were brought in to fortify the middle of the Bears’ linebacker corps. At least Trevathan has panned out and proven to be one of GM Ryan Pace’s best signings.
Nick Kwiatkoski will enter the third year of his rookie contract and could be in line for a breakout year if he gets the starting role left vacated by Freeman.
Jonathan Anderson is a solid depth piece who can start in a pinch. The TCU product has good instincts and sound tackling technique, both of which are important for the former undrafted free agent signing.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
Christian Jones is an unrestricted free agent who has done everything asked of him since joining the Bears. Jones has missed just one game in his four years with the team and could play under his third head coach if he returns in 2018. His contributions as a special teams player should not be overlooked when discussing Jones’ overall value.
John Timu is a restricted free agent and has filled in as a starter on a handful of occasions. If Jones leaves for greener pastures, Timu could likely be called on to fill in as depth like Jones did as a jack-of-all-trades type.
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
The team already cleared a healthy chunk of cap savings by cutting Jerrell Freeman.
Estimated cap savings: $3,460,783 ($500,000 dead money)
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
The NFL Draft has a pair of intriguing options who could be in play for the Bears if they keep the eighth pick.
Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds has the kind of size and athleticism that drives talent evaluators wild (in a good way). Edmunds was most recently mocked to the Bears by Mel Kiper Jr. and his stock has been on the rise recently. It could reach new heights depending on how he performs at the upcoming NFL Scouting combine.
Georgia’s Roquan Smith is a more traditional option at inside linebacker, but doesn’t possess Edmunds’ size (6-5, 250), freakish upside, or the versatility to play inside or out. What Smith does have is a ton of tape as a playmaker against the nation’s best talent in the SEC while roaming the middle of the field. Smith is a tackling machine with speed to burn and a high football IQ, which help make up for being a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds.
If the Bears’ front office chooses to dive into free agency, NaVorro Bowman represents a sensible target. Bowman is familiar with Vic Fangio’s system and played at a Pro Bowl level when he was healthy with the San Francisco 49ers. If the Bears are in search of a veteran stop gap with a little more upside than Christian Jones, Bowman might be a perfect fit.
In the end, giving Nick Kwiatkoski a chance to earn the full-time job as a starter. Kwiatkoski earned an 82.3 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017, which put him among the game’s 20 highest-graded linebackers. He has 13 starts in two years as a fill-in player and should be lined up to take the next step in his development.