Chicago Bears football and stellar inside linebacker play have gone hand-in-hand since the game’s humble beginnings. And the hope is that rookie first-rounder Roquan Smith will be the next great Bears inside linebacker in a long line of studs to line up the middle of the gridiron.
But maybe they already have a young player in place who could have stepped into a starting role.
Pro Football Focus’ Kyle Ramsey notes that Nick Kwiatkoski was a top performer in a pair of the site’s signature statistics, which show the player’s proficiency in two key areas in the game. Kwiatkoski earned PFF’s third-best run-stop percentage (11.5) and fourth best pass-rush productivity grade (21.0) among inside linebackers. That’s an impressive showing for a player who missed five games and was limited to just 382 total snaps in 2017.
Kwiatkoski has been solid as a run defender in each of his first two seasons in the pros, so his high run-stop percentage should come as no surprise. That Kwiatkoski didn’t miss a tackle against the run last season is as impressive as PFF’s run-stop percentage metric. Being a sure-handed tackler at that level is a testament to Kwiatkoski’s skill set and the development since being drafted in the fourth round back in 2016.
And then there is Kwiatkoski’s pass-rush excellence, which comes as somewhat of a surprise.
It’s not that we didn’t believe he was also skilled in this area, but you don’t often think about inside linebackers getting after the quarterback. To that end, I wonder if Kwiatkoski will see more action in passing situations in 2018. Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio needs to be creative when it comes to generating pressure, especially if it’s not coming from the team’s outside linebackers. Kwiatkoski ranked in the top-10 among inside linebackers in PFF’s pass-rush productivity as a rookie in 2016, so perhaps there is some untapped potential in his ability to create pressure from the inside that can help mitigate concerns about the team’s edge rushers.
Kwiatkoski’s 82.3 grade was the 17th highest among linebackers at Pro Football Focus, but he still figures to find himself in a time share with Smith and Danny Trevathan – even after filling in admirably in a pinch as a starter in place of injured players ahead of him on the depth chart in each of his first two seasons. But with Trevathan’s injury history (he’s missed 11 games the last two seasons) and Smith’s inexperience, Kwiatkoski will still get his share of opportunities. And if his first two years are any indication, he’ll have an idea how to capitalize on them.