As apart of an ongoing series, Taking Inventory aims to assess every position set on the Bears, taking a peek at the previous season and provide a sneak peek into projections for the certain group. For day seven, we take a gander at the linebacking crew.
Premier defenses in the NFL will never look exactly the same. While inspirations will be drawn and copycat schemes and sets will lace the playbook, the naturally malleable concept of football defenses manifests themselves in the differing ingenuity of coaches, never to be fully replicated. But the stringent factor between all great defenses will always be extraordinary talent at the linebacker position. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the field with a laundry list of crucial responsibilities, the defense truly operates through the linebackers.
Especially in the modern league with the emergence of a pass rusher in place of a traditional outside linebacker and the ever-growing trend of speedy spread offenses, the requirements of a serviceable linebacker grow by the season. The steady demand of blazing speed in a linebacker has only recently become so prominent with the incessant upbringing of far more rapid offenses than in years past.
Which leads right into the Bears impeccable selection of Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith in this past April’s draft. Designed to terminate the threat of spread offenses by the prospect of spread offenses themselves, Smith’s instincts and sideline-to-sideline chasing ability could not have been fashioned more ideally for the modern NFL.
Able to keep up with the nimblest of backs while rowdy enough to contain the inside run, the Dick Butkus award recipient smushes every defensive obligation into a compact six foot one inch, 225-pound frame. He has textbook open-field tackling capability with evident pass coverage skills, perfectly devised for the modern NFL. With Chicagoan reputation of fostering Hall of Fame linebackers, Smith looks to slide smoothly into the face of the defense berth.
Alongside him in the middle will hold the slightly off-kilter Danny Trevathan. In two seasons as a Bear, he has only appeared in twenty-one games due to a joint effort of injuries and suspensions holding him out. Through all this, he still finished last season with 89 tackles, two sacks, five pass deflections, one interception and one forced fumble.
In games he played in last season, the Bears allowed 307.7 yards per game while in contests he missed, the number shot up to 337.25 yards per game. Trevathan has a noticeable difference on the defense and only at the ripe age of twenty-eight, still has a few quality seasons left in him. If he can survive an entire season, the Bears defense will be radically improved.
Cutting the now-retired Jerrell Freeman will have very little skin off the Bears back, as he routinely finds his way to the IR and the league’s suspension list but his run stuffing may be marginally missed. With the Smith pickup and the expectations for Trevathan, though, Freeman almost had to go.
Considering the poor injury luck, the Bears have loaded up on a few gems right behind them. Selected in the fourth round in the 2016 draft, Nick Kwiatkoski has started a combined thirteen games as an understudy and thoroughly performed. He had thirty-four tackles, two sacks, two pass deflections, and a forced fumble this past season and will be a key rotation cog this season.
As an on-again-off-again practice squad regular, former undrafted free agent John Timu has been a clutch key-in whenever the Bears find themselves in a bind for inside linebackers. Starting nine games over three seasons and a respectable forty-four tackles over his NFL career earned him a vital backup spot in the middle.
As sturdy as the middle will be, the edges will be a point of disaster for the Bears this upcoming season. After shedding Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, and Lamarr Houston, Ryan Pace wholeheartedly handed the keys to the pass rush to the disheartening Leonard Floyd. The former first-rounder only has eleven and a half sacks in his career despite being touted as the next great pass rusher in the NFL only a couple of seasons ago.
Marred by injury, a brutal sophomore slump only saw four and a half sacks in ten games from him and he remains as the biggest question mark in the linebacking corps. In the modern league where sacks and pressures have taken on globs of value, Floyd has to have a breakout year if the defense wants to succeed to its fullest potential. The upward trend for the Bears may wincingly stall if he tumbles to the IR or can’t put the pieces together yet.
Very little rests outside of him other than the unproven Aaron Lynch signed from the 49ers and pass rush could be a total dumpster fire without a massive leap from Floyd. Lynch has endured a couple of merciless seasons watching from the IR and suspended report, limiting his sack totals to a cruel two and a half. His career started off hot enough, with twelve and a half but he has evidently fallen off ever since.
A comeback season will be a huge plus for a painfully dry pass rush crew but the majority will rest on Floyd to finally achieve the first round pedigree. Defensive end Akiem Hicks cannot carry the pass rush alone and Floyd must be able to heavily contribute this season.
Fellow rookie Joel Iyiegbuniwe will bring rangy athleticism and could very well blossom into a solid pass rusher in the NFL down the road. The Western Kentucky alum had one of the most productive seasons for a linebacker in the USA Conference and will aid immediately in the pass coverage and subsets.
Either way, the Bears pass rush will slide hard after a quietly successful season landing them in the top seven of the league for sacks. The inside linebacker gang looks primed as ever to take the defense to the next level but will be perpetually barred down by a lackluster pass rush. However, if Floyd steps up big time as expected this year, the linebackers will be the anchor of a flowering defense.