While the Bears boast a defense seemingly close to blossoming into one of the league’s elite, untimely injuries can and have completely derailed a hopefully improved campaign for the Bears. With an IR eighteen players deep, injuries made maintaining momentum a very difficult task. Nearly every position group suffered a serious blow at one point, with the linebackers and offensive line languishing the hardest. Considering a modern defense’s trends of subsets and shuffling formations, sidelining both headliners and role players had an excruciating impact.
So going in this draft, general manager Ryan Pace understood depth had to be addressed. With Jerrell Freeman enjoying retirement and Danny Trevathan still somewhat unlucky, the interior linebackers required some cushioning. Georgia product Roquan Smith will slide in perfectly as the starter alongside Trevathan but the depth chart just beneath them demanded some extra meat.
And that will be the duty of the compactly-built fourth rounder, Joel Iyiegbuniwe. Injuries stalled his senior year of high school and first year at Western Kentucky but after a breakout junior season, he set off for the NFL. The fearless first-team All-Conference USA linebacker had 117 tackles, including 11.5 for loss in his final year in college. As an athletic and versatile linebacker, he can very well be utilized in certain coverage packages even as a rookie. With a blazing 4.6 forty, Iyiegbuniwe can cover ground quickly and could be a solid boost to the pass coverage.
“Physical, fast, athletic, highly intelligent player,” Pace explained. “When you turn on the tape, it just jumps out, the way he plays, just a real physical, downhill style.”
His rangy athleticism and physical bursts allow for nice modern run-stopping capabilities. Showing prime offensive line scraping and prominent intelligence, he could earn more playing time than expected. Primarily as a rookie, though, Iyiegbuniwe will play a critical role in special teams. With his speed and a rangy play-in-space ability, he serves perfectly on a kickoff and punt team. Not to be disparaged, he had eleven tackles in his junior year in special teams alone, being heavily relied on punt team in his time at Western Kentucky.
Without elite block-shedding, often getting tangled up and lacking a strong first punch, Iyiegbuniwe will need some coaxing to bloom into a viable and complete starter. However, with a very varied yet specific skill set, he will have a defined role already, something that will pay dividends in the future. Rookies have a special responsibility of cementing themselves as something or they risk being flushed out and forgotten about once the rookie halo inevitably comes off.
So as a wonderful value pick, Iyiegbuniwe will compliment the inside linebacker depth splendidly in his rookie year and slowly climb in-depth charts as his career progresses. With only a single season of experience at inside linebacker in college, there will be a daunting learning curve for him in his leap from the USA conference to the NFL. But as a noticeably hard worker, Iyiegbuniwe could become a key rotational cog in a flowering Bears defense.