Two years ago, the Bears decided they couldn’t stomach running games and tight ends continually pounding their defense over the middle. Two years ago, they decided to sign Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan in free agency to give them playmaking, not just respectability at inside linebacker. And two years ago, these moves seemed foolproof until they weren’t.
Flash forward to the present day and the now out of football Freeman started only 13 games in two years due to a variety of injuries. Trevathan, one of the lynchpins of a dominant Super Bowl-winning Broncos defense, has missed 12 starts since then. Trevathan has been effective and made plays for the Bears when available, but the problem is that he hasn’t been consistently available.
What were linebacking transactions that set up a framework for the Bears to ideally not worry about a position while they build up the rest of their roster, turned into more of a need than anyone believed. It morphed into Chicago snatching the opportunity to draft Roquan Smith this past April, to become the face of their defense they’ve been missing. It developed into adding Joel Iyiegbuniwe, someone who in time is going to be Smith’s partner. If Trevathan has anything to say about it, Iyiegbuniwe should patiently settle in.
The Bears’ defense didn’t change much this off-season. One area to monitor that did experience a makeover and that will have the most impact on their 2018 efforts is inside linebacker.
The main defensive focus of this year’s Bears training camp centers in on how Smith ingratiates himself to the NFL, and whether he indeed is everything Chicago has been seeking. And if Trevathan can be the mentor he needs.
Tradition is a heavy word
No one does the classic off-ball linebacker better than the Bears. This is an inarguable fact. Four Hall of Famers in Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher — three of them on the first ballot.
Four men who helped first define the position in George, set about a standard of intimidation with Butkus, became the defensive face of the best Bears team ever in Singletary, and fashioned a modern take on what linebackers should be with Urlacher. Each with their distinct addition to Chicago’s historical ledger of defensive success. When you play this position for the Bears, expectations of greatness are never higher.
The question is where Smith ends up making his mark as the next hopeful addition to this tradition, and whether he’s capable of exceeding past the pressure already being heaped onto his shoulders. As the No. 8 overall pick and 2017 Butkus Award Winner, failure won’t be tolerated.
By all accounts, at least through the Bears’ off-season activities. Smith has taken to being the Bears’ defensive leader like a fish to water. Normally, it takes time for eventual starters, especially rookies, to distinguish themselves. Yet there Smith was getting first-team defensive reps near the close of Chicago’s May minicamp, wasting no time taking what’s his.
When he was drafted, Smith compared himself and his style of play to a childhood idol in former 49er Patrick Willis — a stalwart for Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in San Francisco. If the Bears are receiving anything close to the production of a seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time First-Team All-Pro, they’ll be ecstatic. And not surprised.
Smith has the ability, instincts, and intelligence to thrive like some of the NFL’s greats. To be a household name. His college resume and calm, calculated demeanor speaks for itself. Now the hype has to translate to the field.
Looking for a rebound
At some point, the Bears have to get what they paid for when they signed Trevathan to a four-year, $28 million dollar deal in 2016. Or else a $2.5 million dead cap hit looms if he’s cut.
The Bears know it, otherwise they wouldn’t have drafted Iyiegbuniwe as a developmental piece to potentially and eventually supplant the established veteran. Trevathan knows it as well, even if he’ll never publicly express these sentiments. 2018 is a make-or-break season for the 28-year-old.
To be completely fair to Trevathan, he hasn’t started all 16 games of a season since 2013, his unofficial official rookie year. Knee injuries have plagued him from college to the NFL, and he’s come back roaring every time he’s returned. None of what he’s gone through to this stage should be shocking.
But the Bears can’t reasonably rely on a part-time player, regardless of his talent, and regardless of his commitment to the organization to be 100 percent healthy if it doesn’t translate to anything meaningful. They didn’t shell out for a part-time player. Production and availability are the main factors. Everything else is superfluous in comparison.
Right now, Trevathan is the 13th highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL. Given his standing and relative disappointments, that’s a fair mark until he proves himself of more worth to the Bears. Examine what he’s actually given the Bears based on his main parameters in tackles — especially in the 2017 season — and this perspective worsens.
Among all qualified players, Trevathan was tied for 42nd in the league with 89 tackles: 33rd among off-ball linebackers. His own teammate in Christian Jones had 90 tackles. Jon Bostic, failed Phil Emery draft pick and all, had 97 with the Colts. The fact that I have to click to the second page of listed players to find Trevathan’s name is an underrated indictment.
Tackles aren’t always the ideal measure of the impact of an individual player, as they can at times overrate the caliber of guys. In the case of traditional sideline-to-sideline roamers, you better be padding the statistical sheet, and Trevathan has too often failed in that regard for the Bears.
If Trevathan has any kind of long term future with the Bears, he needs to offer them more than his average of around five to six passes defensed per season: his primary value. He’s one of the best coverage linebackers in a pass-happy NFL, something that can’t be easily tracked, and something that can’t be his sole calling card.
So far, with a full off-season under his belt, the comeback and major impact plan is coming to fruition. Not least of which according to Fangio.
“I know you guys are all interested in the rookies, and understandably so, but I think some of the veterans have gotten better through this time too,” Fangio said at a Bears’ press conference in May. “Guys like Trevathan. You may ask why, well last year he didn’t do any of this stuff. He didn’t do any OTAs, he hardly did any training camp, didn’t play in any preseason games and to me that set him back last year and he was injured the year before. This is the first time he’s had a nice chunk of work. I see improvement with him.”
Trevathan is one of Chicago’s defensive mainstays, someone that has to help in bringing along Smith in the manner the Bears envision. He’s someone that acts as the maestro of their defense until Smith is ready. How long he gets the opportunity to do so on both counts hinges heavily on how well he plays, or how often he stays on the field this season.
Name a better duo, I’ll wait
With the caveats of what their needed success means to this season in mind, it’s difficult to envision many better current inside linebacking pairs than Smith and Trevathan, if everything goes well (it rarely does). The Bears have their insurance policies in place, but still have a touch more talent at this position than most other NFL teams.
Trevathan and Smith together are two players that can produce close to 100 tackles each at their very best. They’re two guys that can stick with tight ends and running backs in coverage: an absolute necessity in today’s league, and a luxury seldom seen in both linebackers manning the middle. Overall, they’re capable of getting everybody else lined up properly, and leading by an exemplary example.
The only question if both are on the field is how they mesh together chemistry-wise. For two guys like Smith and Trevathan rooted in instinct, they’ll likely only need the smallest ounces of time to get acclimated to each other’s change. To the change the Bears themselves have instituted.
In terms of historical perspective, Smith and Trevathan aren’t Fangio’s Willis and NaVorro Bowman with the 49ers. That’s more likely Smith and Iyiegbuniwe together instead, based on development and fresh hopes. But they’re a solid “consolation” prize.
What will hold back Smith is initial experience, and what will limit Trevathan is health. A better roll of the dice in both situations, and the Bears are playing with house money with them in 2018. The potential is there, as is the undeniable influence on a Bears defense that could use some leaders.
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.