The Bears began the 2019 season with what many believed to be the best inside linebacker corps in the NFL and finished it with a career backup and journeyman street free agent starting next to each other with little behind them in reserve.
That said, the talent to get back on top is right in front of the Bears – depending on the health of Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, and what the team decides on with its own free agents.
In spite of a game lost to personal issues in Week 4 against the Vikings and a less than stellar return to action in three consecutive losses afterward to the Raiders, Saints and Chargers, Smith bounced back in Week 9 against the Eagles and continued to improve from there, playing arguably the best game of his career Thanksgiving Day in Detroit.
A week later, Smith tore a pectoral muscle against Dallas and was lost for the season.
Nonetheless, only 23 years old in April, he should be ready for the beginning of the 2020 season and is considered one of the brightest young defenders in the league.
Trevathan went down for the count in Week 10 in the first Lions game with a grisly elbow injury and is an unrestricted free agent facing his 30th birthday near the end of March.
He is a team captain and one of the Bears’ most important leaders in the locker room, but in four seasons as a Bear, he has played only nine, 12, 16 and nine games.
Nick Kwiatkoski was outstanding stepping in for Trevathan, much more athletic in coverage than anyone expected. But like Trevathan, he is an unrestricted free agent, and still only 26, he’s likely earned himself a nice payday somewhere.
Kevin Pierre-Louis is a Smith clone, signed in May after bouncing around the league. He also was excellent stepping in for Smith but is a third Bears unrestricted free agent at the position.
Joel Iyiegbuniwe, a fourth-rounder in 2018, rounds out the group but has shown little other than special-teams chops and is unlikely to be able to carry Trevathan’s or Kwiatkoski’s weight.
2019 matter of fact: After finishing the 2018 season No. 1 in the league against the run and fourth in average gain allowed an attempt, the Bears fell to ninth and sixth, respectively, last season.
However, some of that can be attributed to the early-season loss of Akiem Hicks, as well as the injuries to Trevathan and Smith.
Bears inside linebackers had seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2018 but almost matched that last season in spite of the injuries with six sacks and 16 more TFLs.
The main reason was Kwiatkoski adding three sacks and eight tackles for loss after posting none a season earlier.
Cap commitment: The Bears have only $2.8 million committed to Smith and Iyiegbuniwe, 2.7% of their total cap, so they will be spending money at the position. The question is: Will they spend it on Trevathan, Kwiatkoski, Pierre-Louis, some combination of the three or new talent altogether?
The most likely scenario is they will sign Pierre-Louis and one of the other two and add a rookie through the draft.
Offseason need (1 lowest, 5 highest): The Bears’ need at inside linebacker is a 5 at the moment because of the free agents, but it drops to a 3 if they sign either Trevathan or Kwiatkoski, a 1 if they sign both and a 2 if they sign one or the other and Pierre-Louis.
Available prospects to watch: The only free agents who might be better options than their own are Cory Littleton (age 26, Rams), Patrick Onwuasor (28, Ravens) or Reggie Ragland (26, Chiefs), and Littleton and Onwuasor almost certainly will command a lot more money than Trevathan or Kwiatkoski.
The draft is fairly rich in Day 2 prospects at the position, including Zack Baun (Wisconsin), Patrick Queen (LSU) and Malik Harrison (Ohio St.), but unless the Bears actually have a first-round grade on one, it’s hard to envision them using one of their second-rounders at inside linebacker with so many greater needs on offense.