If ILB Danny Trevathan misses significant time this year, which is likely, the Chicago Bears will once again be forced to mix and match at the inside linebacker position, a scenario that carries with it a number of potential problems.
The Chicago Bears last season placed ILB Danny Trevathan on Injured Reserve on Nov. 28 with a torn patella tendon in his right knee.
With the Bears mired in a 3-13 campaign, the loss of Trevathan a month before the end of a lost season was just a blip on an ugly radar.
Yet of the 19 Bears who ended last season on IR, Trevathan’s injury will likely have the longest-lasting effects.
Torn patella tendons can take up to a year to heal and for some, like teammate Victor Cruz, the recovery time can be almost twice that. That means Trevathan might be on the shelf until the second half of the regular season or later, if he returns in 2017 at all.
Trevathan was part of a 2016 off-season in which GM Ryan Pace invested heavily at inside linebacker. He signed Trevathan, who was coming off a Super Bowl run with the Denver Broncos, and Jerrell Freeman in free agency, and used a fourth-round pick on Nick Kwiatkoski. That created healthy depth at inside linebacker, which was arguably the biggest need on the team at the time.
That depth is now in serious peril.
In addition to Trevathan, there is uncertainty about Freeman’s future in Chicago. He played quality football last year – when he wasn’t serving a four-game PED suspension – but he’ll be 32 entering next season, so he’s clearly not a long-term option.
There’s also the possibility that when Trevathan does return, he may not be the same player he was pre-injury. Remember, his game is predicated on speed, and destructive knee injuries can take that away from a player in a literal heartbeat. If Trevathan can’t run, his value plummets.
Despite investing heavily in two starting-caliber inside linebackers just a year ago, the Bears already need to start contemplating a future without both players.
That means all eyes will be on Kwiatkoski this season. As a rookie, the West Viriginia product started seven games, tallying 44 combined tackles, 2 pass breakups and 1 forced fumble. He showed prowess as a downhill linebacker against the run but he struggled mightily in pass coverage.
As a result, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio used a rotation at inside linebacker during the second half last year, substituting Christian Jones for Kwiakoski on passing downs. Jones is a taller, rangier linebacker who can cover far more ground and shadow pass catchers at a far higher level than Kwiatkoski, but he struggles at the point of attack.
Yet that’s not an ideal scenario, for a few reasons. First, if Fangio guesses wrong, then Kwiatkowski will be exploited trying to cover a speedy running back or tight end, or Jones will be swallowed up in the box trying to defend the run.
Second, a rotation interrupts the flow of each player, never allowing him to find his groove, while it also disrupts the flow of his teammates, who have to constantly adjust to the differing skill sets of the two ILBs.
Finally, it stunts the development of both players in their respective areas of weakness. Repetition is the foundation for improvement and development, in anything, not just football. So if Jones rarely has to play the run and Kwiatkoski rarely has to drop into coverage, why should we expect either to develop into an every down linebacker?
Yet, despite its inherent flaws, the injury to Trevathan may once again for Fangio’s hand. Don’t be surprised during training camp and the preseason to see Jones and Kwiatkoski rotating with the first team alongside Freeman.
Expect John Timu to be a first replacement for Kwiatkoski, if he’s injured or fails to live up to expectations. Timu is a run stuffer in the same mold as Kwiakoski, although he doesn’t have as much range.
Expect Jonathan Anderson to be a first replacement for Jones. Anderson is now in his third year under Fangio and he’s flashed at times, but he didn’t start a single game for the team last season and was used primarily on special teams.
Beyond that, the cupboard is pretty bare, with nothing but undrafted rookies to fill in the gaps. To me, that does not qualify as “quality” depth.
With good health Fangio can make do with what he has at inside linebacker, but if the 31-year-old Freeman gets hurt, it could get ugly quickly.
Kwiatkoski is only 24 and Jones is just 26 entering his fourth NFL season, so there’s a chance both players take a step forward this year. Yet there’s also a good chance each guy is what he is, and probably isn’t going to emerge as a three-down All Pro anytime soon.
The ideal scenario for the Bears is for Trevathan to reach full health early in the season and regain the form he showed as a Super Bowl champion with the Broncos. But if that doesn’t happen, the Bears could be walking a fine line at inside linebacker, both this season and beyond.