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Back to the Future: Analyzing the Bears’ long-term outlook at inside linebacker

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In the first article in an ongoing series, WCG’s Jacob Infante and The Loop Sports’ Jack Soble discuss the Bears’ future at inside linebacker.

NFL: Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers
Could Danny Trevathan become too expensive for the Bears to bring back next offseason?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Training camp is roughly a month away, and the anticipation for Bears fans is the highest it has been in recent years.

With a divisional title under their belt and most of their starters returning, expectations are high for Chicago to be a legitimate Super Bowl threat in 2019. They have taken advantage of Mitchell Trubisky’s rookie contract to bolster their roster with high-end free agent signings and extending Khalil Mack’s contract after trading for him.

As is the case with any contending team, though, the Bears will inevitably have to let some of their starters walk when their contracts expire. This offseason saw Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan leave to secure expensive deals in free agency: a sign of what could happen in future offseasons. With the excess of talent Chicago has, they have to choose wisely which players they value enough to re-sign and keep around in the long haul. More expendable starters and backups will end up departing to sign costly contracts with other teams.

To analyze the Bears’ long-term roster outlook and what their plans could be going forward, The Loop Sports’ lead Bears writer Jack Soble and I discussed the future state of multiple positions on their roster. This is the first in a series of conversations that will alternate between our respective websites to give you all our thoughts on what the Bears’ plans may be in forthcoming offseasons.

Windy City Gridiron Writer Jacob Infante: I was thinking about writing a piece talking about roster battles, but there really aren’t enough to make up a full article.

The Loop Sports Lead Bears Writer Jack Soble: I actually disagree. Receiver, running back, inside linebacker, and defensive back should see some back-of-the-roster battles. Tight end, too, especially with Bradley Sowell’s position change.

Infante: I wrote something up on receiver, because that’s the most intriguing one for me, at least. Defensive back and tight end I could see. I’m not sure about inside linebacker, though.

Soble: I could see Nick Kwiatkoski facing competition from Josh Woods, maybe even Kevin Pierre-Louis. They’ve given up on Kwiatkoski being anything on defense, in my opinion. Oh, and outside linebacker should see competition, especially because Chuck Pagano said that Chuck Harris and Mathieu Betts have been good so far.

Infante: Kwiatkoski could have some competition, but I think he sticks around this year and leaves in free agency next season. They might keep him around for special teams purposes.

Soble: That’s my thinking, too, but I think they kind of like Woods. If he balls out in preseason, I think they might keep him as opposed to Kwiatkoski. Especially with a very real long-term need at inside backer.

Infante: I agree with that. They’re going to need a long-term option alongside Roquan Smith, because Danny Trevathan isn’t going to play at this level forever.

Soble: Not to mention he’s on an expiring contract and could very well play his way out of Chicago.

Infante: I forgot for a second if Trevathan’s contract expired after 2019 or 2020. In that case, I could definitely see another team giving him a sizable deal next offseason that the Bears just can’t match.

Soble: Yeah, it expires after this year. He signed a four-year deal in March of 2016. So as of now, the starting inside linebackers in 2020 are Smith and Joel Iyegbuniwe, and I don’t know if the Bears are comfortable with that. That’s why I think if Woods performs well in camp, they could stash him on the 53-man roster in place of Kwiatkoski.

Infante: They’re going to have to try to give Iyegbuniwe a bigger role on defense this year to see if they can trust him as a starter. We saw next to nothing from him last season.

Soble: Barring an injury to Trevathan or Smith, I don’t know how they’ll do that.

Infante: I’m not too sure either. The Bears don’t sub off-ball backers very often, but they’ve got to at least see what they have in Iyegbuniwe, I assume.

Soble: I’d go a step further - they don’t sub inside backers ever. They’ll bring one out for a dime package, but they never put the backup in like a defensive line or outside linebacker rotation. I’d imagine Iyegbuniwe will be a player to monitor closely in the preseason.

Infante: Just looked it up and Kwiatkoski played 10.55 percent of the defensive snaps. Take out the first Green Bay game and that drops down to about six percent. I’d guess Iyegbuniwe would get around that much this year, which will be tough.

Soble: Would imagine taking out blowouts and Week 17 (a game that was meaningless to the Bears) drops it to less than one percent. Line of scrimmage guys are the only ones who consistently rotate, which is a big part of why I played defensive line in high school.

Infante: You’re not wrong. I didn’t realize how blowouts inflated his snap count.

Soble: Yup, taking out blowouts, Week One, and Week 17, he played 24 defensive snaps on the season. You could take out Week Two, because you could argue that he only played then because Smith was still getting acclimated. So 15.

Infante: I’m very early in my 2020 draft preparations, so I don’t know too much about the upcoming linebacker class yet. To my understand, though, there isn’t a lot of great Day 2 talent at the position. Outside of Alabama’s Dylan Moses and Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of great talent yet. They’re not going to know what they have in Iyegbuniwe, barring injury, so if Trevathan leaves, they could very well draft one early, which could be a challenge.

Soble: If Trevathan leaves, they’ll almost certainly get a veteran replacement to compete with Iyegbuniwe or a pick. Just eyeballing the list, Kyle Van Noy, Reggie Ragland, and Corey Littleton could be options there.

Infante: Littleton could be a good pickup, though I bet he’d be more expensive than the other two. I’m not too hot on Ragland, though. I think his lack of athleticism limits his ceiling.

Soble: Yeah, I’m not a huge Ragland fan, either, but it’s not really about ceiling. They just need a cheap option to at least compete for the job so they don’t have a massive hole at inside linebacker heading into the draft.

Infante: I’m just saying there are better options out there. I don’t think I’d trust him in the starting lineup, though it would depend on who else they’d throw in as competition.

Soble: That’s fair. Van Noy would be my preferred option, to be honest. He’d come cheap, he has championship experience, and the Bears have had success with former Patriots before. The apparent Belichick-Ryan Pace alliance is a very good thing.

Infante: I can’t speak too much as to how Van Noy is as a player, but he’s been a starter there for two years now and got signed to a deal worth nearly $6 million per year a few years back. I agree that the Belichick-Pace alliance is good, but I don’t know how cheap he’ll come. Again, that’s without knowing too much about how good he’s actually been the past few years.

Soble: He’s 29. Assuming he doesn’t completely go off this year, teams should tend to be cautious with non-superstar former Patriots who are nearly 30. He certainly would be cheaper than Trevathan, and he’d be all but a plug-and-play starter.

Infante: He’d be cheaper for sure. I also don’t know too much about the 2020 linebacker class yet, so I’m not sure if a stopgap veteran or an early draft pick would be the best move at the moment. Either way, it’s one of their biggest needs going forward.

Soble: It’s their biggest, in my opinion. I’d include safety, edge rusher, guard, offensive line depth, and cornerback (not necessarily in that order) in that group as well. They could very well face a similar situation to inside backer at corner, with Prince Amukamara as a cut candidate. It could be a cheap veteran against Kevin Toliver for that starting job next year.

Infante: Safety and linebacker are their two biggest going forward, I believe. You could at tight end to that list, though it isn’t as big of a need as a majority of those positions.

Soble: With Burton locked in with guaranteed money through 2020, I don’t know how much you can invest in tight end right now. It’s Shaheen’s last chance this year, and if he fails then they need a Y, but Burton is safe as the starting U for two more years.

Infante: I agree Burton’s safe for two more years, but I wouldn’t totally rule out adding a draft pick if the value is right. Shaheen is probably nothing at this point, and unless Dax Raymond shows promise in the preseason, they could look to add a long-term starter. I think it’s more of a priority for the 2021 offseason, but the Bears have shown that they’re willing to take value and long-term upside over immediate need.

Soble: I’m going to disagree on Shaheen, but that’s an entirely different conversation.