Traditionally, inside linebacker has been a position the Bears have always valued more than most. Or at least, done better with than most. No other organization in the NFL has the same grouping of legends like Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher..
Similarly, Bears’ general manager Ryan Pace clearly puts a premium on being set in the middle. His 2016 investments in Danny Trevathan ($7.15 million per year), and Jerrell Freeman ($4 million), painted the picture of attempting to set the foundation of Chicago’s defense with two of the more underrated but solid linebackers in football. Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice (and bears) often go awry.
In the two years since, the Pro Football Focus darling in Freeman missed 19 of 32 possible starts due to suspension and injury. He’s no longer on the Bears’ roster. Meanwhile, Trevathan has missed 11 starts in two years due to injury: most notably tearing his patellar tendon in November 2016. The Bears were lucky that Trevathan played the way he did when on the field in 2017 considering the extent of an injury that normally robs football players of their athletic gifts. At any rate, the linebacking cornerstone has proven to not be wholly reliable.
With Freeman gone, and Trevathan a relative question mark, Chicago did use a draft selection in 2016 on Nick Kwiatkoski: the only pick the Bears have used on an inside linebacker.
Unfortunately, the former fourth rounder in Kwiatkoski has also had issues staying on the field and is far from a proven commodity. After two seasons and 13 games played, he looks more like depth than an answer. That’s especially considered with the departure of former decent depth in Christian Jones to the Lions.
Long story short: the Bears could theoretically wait on drafting an inside linebacker, however this is more of a need than anyone will let on. The defensive edge and interior offensive line are obvious holes in comparison. So relying on Kwiatkoski or Trevathan is sound in theory, until one of them goes down. This is a precarious draft position where Chicago could go all in, and mitigate the heavy amount of linebacker concern for a long time.
Piecing together the Bears’ current linebacker outlook and picking out the top choices with the draft almost here.
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
2017 statistics: 108 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 passes defensed
Height and weight: 6-foot-4 and 253 pounds
Edmunds isn’t the greatest linebacker prospect in years, nor is he the most complete to come out. However, it’s more than fair to say he could potentially be one of the most unique weapons that’s a perfect fit for what the 2018 NFL necessitates. Players with this tremendous amount of versatility and playmaking ability like Edmunds don’t grow on trees. They’re not readily made for seamless deployment. They’re gifted, more than their counterparts could ever dream.
What Edmunds does best is drive the engine of his defense, the way an inside linebacker should. He can naturally roam sideline to sideline in a blur, because of his penchant for changing direction and reading and reacting. He’s a twitchy player that closes gaps for offensive opponents who previously thought they had a seam.
This is something only the elite defensive talents are capable of: shutting down the door in what are normally successful plays for the offense. If you think a gap has opened, or that a pass target is open downfield, Edmunds is the player that quickly erases that faint thought and makes you regret getting overconfident.
When Edmunds reaches ball carriers or skill position players of any kind, he makes them pay with force: he’s not afraid of contact. This is done while using his 34-inch spider-like arms to grapple in plays that otherwise aren’t routinely made. If you’re within range of Edmunds’ wing span, he’s going to bring you down whether you like it or not.
What’s most tantalizing about what Edmunds brings to the table as a defender is his knack for coverage. Said without hyperbole: he legitimately is the best pure coverage linebacker I’ve ever seen. In a league moving towards an oversaturated amount of spread offenses that dictate match-ups against plodding linebackers and safeties, Edmunds is the ideal counter.
No one flips their hips seamlessly to stay stride for stride with running backs or tight ends like Edmunds. No one breaks on the ball and reads a quarterback’s eyes like Edmunds. Ultimately, no one is a better antidote to the advent of those spread offenses like Edmunds is.
Where there’s projection with Edmunds is on the defensive edge. Not to mention that he’s so raw as an inside linebacker that he his lacking instincts can take him out of plays. He didn’t play as a full time pass rusher at any point during his career with Virginia Tech.
To assume he could do so in the NFL is to make a point to coach up the Swiss Army Knife while maintaining he doesn’t reach his ceiling for a season or two. With a patient coach (hello Vic Fangio!), those raw instincts become second nature as Edmunds gets more comfortable with pro football. His youth allows for time to grow up.
Until then, Edmunds’ athletic ability can more than make up for his shortcomings.
As to any concerns about how Edmunds gets used to the challenge that the NFL presents, well, he has an entire blue blood football family to rely on.
Edmunds’ father, Ferrell, was a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro with the Miami Dolphins in the late 1980’s. His brothers, Trey and Terrell, both played in college with him. Trey currently plays for the Saints, while Terrell is an underrated safety prospect in this year’s draft.
From a young age, Edmunds’ mother told ESPN that she realized that he was going to play football when at 4-years-old he said, “I can’t wait to play football so I can knock somebody’s head off.”
Edmunds didn’t want to follow in his brother’s footsteps doing it. He wanted to make a life of playing the game on his own. But as he has been “inseparable” with his brothers his entire life, the wide-eyed linebacker can again lean on a common bond of football.
From that moment Edmunds told his mother of his plans to now, it’s become a wild ride for his whole clan.
“It just shows you how long I’ve been working and how long I’ve been wanting this,” Edmunds said to ESPN. “Now, getting to this stage, it means so much to me.”
Back me up
Bears’ need: High
It wouldn’t be an awful idea for the Bears to go into 2018 with Trevathan and Kwiatkoski as their starting inside linebackers. But it would be risky. Trevathan will be 29 next year while Kwiatkoski is projecting to be depth instead. The Bears have a chance to fill the next historic Bears’ linebacking gap and should pounce on it.
Current roster: Danny Trevathan ($7.15 million average annual value), Nick Kwiatkoski ($630,000 average annual value), John Timu ($705,000 average annual value).
Top linebackers available
1. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
The potential of Edmunds in the NFL is astronomical. Provided he lands in the proper situation, there’s no reason to believe he can’t be a face of the league that single-handedly tilts fields for his defense. It’s going to take time for Edmunds to learn the nuance of football at it’s highest level, but when he does: watch out.
2. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
Instinct, instinct, and instinct. It’s a cliche in regards to players like Smith, but the thing about cliches being overused is that they’re fundamentally true. Smith is the most polished linebacker in this year’s draft. He’s a playmaker prepared to flip the league on it’s head with his speed and processing ability. Take him knowing he’s a tone-setter from the start.
3. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
The 2017 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Vander Esch is another immediate impact guy. He’s not like his Shea McClellin Boise State descendants before him: he’s too refined for that bust status. To boot, he’s a man built on humility and hard work. This is a plus run and pass defender that could benefit with some seasoning before eventually running rampant.
4. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
A consummate Patriot (kidding, but not really), Evans has the fortune of likely landing with a very good football team that uses his edge rush and tackling ability to it’s max output. Play him in a 3-4 scheme and have him occasionally blitz as he’s apt at rushing the passer. Or, move forward with him as the player that mans the middle of the field. A lack of size at 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds is of no concern with someone who just makes plays.
5. Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
Sleep on Leonard’s potential, and he’ll make you pay for overlooking him. The small school product was one of college football’s most productive linebackers in football the past few seasons. Another undersized prospect with a nose for the ball, and instincts on top of it. The competition level Leonard played against doesn’t matter as much when he’s proven to dominate that competition. Whichever defense takes a flier on Leonard, is a unit that understands where to place talented players, regardless of where they came from.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.