The Bears’ linebacking corps has some potential to it.
They have invested some significant resources into this position group, from a high priced free agent signing to two top ten draft picks in the past three seasons.
However, when analyzing it thoroughly, it could very well be the downfall of the 2018 Chicago Bears.
The linebackers this season are very much lacking in terms of players who have proven they can play at a high NFL level. Only one exists on the current roster, and he has had issues staying on the field during his Bears tenure. And as I articulated in a piece from a few weeks ago, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to a defense to get its pass rushers right. In the Vic Fangio’s defense, those fit into the linebacker category.
With all that being said, I go back to the first sentence of this introduction, and I’ll even go a bit further: if all goes right, Chicago’s linebackers could very well be an above average unit who could easily be called a strength of the team. But throughout training camp, if we don’t see marked improvement from a few key players, there will absolutely be cause for legitimate concern.
I will explain why in the seventh in a series of positional previews leading up to July 21st, when the Bears open training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
Projected Depth Chart
The inside linebacker duo, presuming health (knock on wood) should elevate the level of play of the rest of the defense. Both possess great instincts, sideline to sideline speed, and exquisite tackling abilities.
Trevathan is in the prime of his career and although he has had injury issues (including a brutally torn ligament that ended his 2016 campaign and for a while threatened to damage his 2017), he seems to be in peak physical condition. Smith, of course, was the eighth overall pick and while Vic Fangio seems adamant about making him “earn it,” it can be reasonably presumed that once he signs a rookie contract, he’ll be the other starter.
The ILBs corps is one of the deeper areas on the Bears’ roster as well. Kwiatkowski was a fine starter last season and the position wasn’t upgraded in desperation, rather in liking Smith too much to pass up. “Iggy” (typing that name once is more than enough) has intriguing traits and should step in immediately on special teams. Timu and Anderson have spot starter experience, especially the latter, who was a John Fox favorite but was brought back under Matt Nagy.
The concerning part is the outside backers. I’ll describe what we need to see from Floyd in much greater detail later, but suffice it to say this is a monumental year for him. Lynch’s health problems are well-chronicled but he was most productive in San Francisco under Fangio so Chicago decided to bring him in on a one year “prove it” deal.
Beyond those two, there is Sam Acho, a reliable run stopper who doesn’t offer much pass rush to speak of, and Kylie Fitts, a rookie out of Utah. He has a nice combination of length and speed but could never stay healthy during his collegiate career. It is, however, a consensus opinion that he was a very good value pick in the sixth round. If the Bears can get meaningful production and long-term promise out of him, Ryan Pace deserves much credit.
Key training camp battle – Nick Kwiatkowski’s attempt to find a spot on the field
Kwiatkowski, since being drafted via trade up in the fourth round out of West Virginia in 2016, has always been a Pace favorite. He’s a strong tackler and he’s displayed his best ability in blitzing through the A gap and getting to the quarterback.
That last point is going to be huge for him because the Bears need all the pass rushers they can get and if he’s willing to move outside in sub packages or just as a roving blitzer, he’ll stumble upon some playing time. Obviously, his biggest role right now is Trevathan insurance but Fangio could use a man of his skillset in the regular rotation.
Keys to success
1. Leonard Floyd’s development
I’m a fan of Leonard Floyd. He’s crazy long, has added some strength during his brief NFL career, and possesses the speed off the edge that makes quarterbacks wet their pants. However, it hasn’t really translated into superb production, especially in his 2017 season that can be fairly classified as disappointing.
Watching him on film, he needs to figure out some secondary rush moves once his speed rush is stalled. If this continues, the Bears do not have a prayer of beating Green Bay or even Detroit for that matter. He’s the only one on the roster who could possibly get to the quarterback on a more consistent basis but he hasn’t quite proven it yet. And, like many other players on these Bears: He. Has. To. Stay. Healthy. Playing 22 out of a possible 32 games in his first two seasons is not going to fly this year.
He looked so good in his rookie campaign and has shown flashes of being a premier pass rusher but to be put simply, it’s put up or shut up time for Leonard Floyd.
2. Finding secondary pass rushers
Can Vic Fangio rejuvenate Aaron Lynch? What about the aforementioned Kwiatkowski, can he find a role? Will Fitts or Iggy step up? We don’t know, but one of these three things has to happen in for the Bears to have a fighting chance at playoff contention.
Even if Floyd makes a big jump, he alone will not be enough. He needs a partner in crime and it’s up to Fangio (who, by the way, has near-complete defensive autonomy this season) to find one, no matter what position they’re listed at heading into training camp.
3. The infusion of Roquan Smith
As much as I’ve praised Kwiatkowski in this piece, there’s a reason Ryan Pace went out and got the Butkus award winner out of Georgia.
Smith led his defense to the National Championship game and nearly brought them to victory in spite of their defensive coordinator (I’m never forgiving Mel Tucker for how he and Trestman destroyed this team). He’ll have the same effect on the defense that Pace and Nagy hope Mitch Trubisky will have on the offense. His energy, the physicality that he plays with despite a slight disadvantage in size, and his sheer aggressiveness at the point of attack is infectious, not only to the linebackers but to the entire defense.
It shouldn’t take long for Smith to establish himself as a key leader on the defensive side of the football. Assuming he signs his contract (right now there is nothing to worry about), he’ll step into training camp, grab the starting job, and work towards turning into the monster he can become.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JS_92_ –Feature Photo Credit: NBC Sports