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2021 NFL Draft: Best linebacker depth options for Bears

The Bears could look for one of these 2021 draft prospects to shore up their depth at the inside linebacker position.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In retrospect, the structuring of Danny Trevathan’s contract extension may not have been the smartest thing the Bears have ever done.

With two more years remaining on a deal with no real opportunity to get out of the contract and save cap room, the Bears will have a decent amount of money tied up to a linebacker who showed signs of slowing down in 2020.

That’s not to say Trevathan was bad, as he had his fair share of strong games and held his own against the run. However, it is apparent that he’s not as quick as he was earlier in his career, which has provided for some issues in coverage: he was in the bottom 20 in completion percentage allowed and had the seventh-worst passer rating allowed among linebackers.

While Trevathan’s role in the starting lineup is safe for 2021, he doesn’t hold the every-down role that he used to. He saw his snap counts dip to 78 percent this past season, and he was occasionally taken out on passing downs down the stretch. For reference, in 2019 he missed just 15 out of the 553 defensive snaps in the 8 games for which he was fully healthy — giving him a 97.3 snap count percentage.

That said, the Bears could afford to invest in a young linebacker to groom behind Trevathan in the 2021 NFL Draft. At the very least, they could get a special teamer to boost their third phase, as well as an option with more upside than the rather thin group they currently have behind Trevathan and Roquan Smith. In a best case scenario, though, the Bears could find a future starter.

These are six linebackers who would fit the bill as potential Day 3 linebacker targets for the Bears in the 2021 draft.

Garret Wallow, TCU

A former safety, Garret Wallow’s style of play is very much representative of his former position.

The most notable trait about Wallow’s game is his athletic ability. He showcases fluid hips and quick feet when changing direction, and he offers very good closing speed in pursuit. He is quick to accelerate downhill and is precise in the angles he takes as a run defender. His fluidity gives him some value in coverage, and with a 6-foot-2 and 230-pound frame, he has does a solid job of adding bulk since transitioning to the linebacker position. With 287 tackles in his last 34 games, his production more than meets a passable quota. Even though tackling numbers don’t always tell the full story of a linebacker’s talent, his do.

Wallow is still a bit raw in the box, as his instincts in the run game are still improving, as is his physicality. He can struggle with holding up blocks and disengaging near the line of scrimmage, so adding some more muscle will likely be necessary. His athletic upside makes him an especially intriguing option around Rounds 4 or 5.

Tony Fields II, West Virginia

With 375 tackles to his name, including 88 in just nine games in 2020, you’d be hard-pressed to find a linebacker more productive over his four years in college that Tony Fields II.

As a three-year starter for Arizona before transferring to and starting at West Virginia for his 2020 season, Fields is an experienced player, and that matches the way he plays on tape. He is quick to diagnose and plays with control over his tempo in pursuit. He can be patient when waiting for a play to develop, but he’s quick to pounce once he gets a clear angle to the ball. Fields’ athleticism helps out in that regard, as he’s one of the more fluid linebackers in the class and is plenty fast accelerating in a straight line. He has also flashed some promise in coverage, as he can recognize route concepts fairly well and accelerate downhill quickly across the middle of the field.

Fields is fairly undersized at 6-foot-1 and about 220 pounds, and he doesn’t have extremely notable physicality when engaged with blockers. His wingspan is somewhat limited, and he doesn’t have the nastiest edge in his game. Despite said concerns, he does project well as a high-end special teams option, and that should see him selected in Rounds 5 or 6.

Grant Stuard, Houston

Grant Stuard is another former safety-turned-linebacker prospect in this talented linebacker draft class, and he stakes a reasonable claim as the most aggressive of that bunch.

If you’re not sensing a pattern with these players yet, you should: Stuard is yet another athletic linebacker with upside on passing downs. He is quick to close in on a ball-carrier and offers fluid hips in both coverage and as a sideline-to-sideline defender. Though maybe not as dynamic as some of the other linebackers on this list, he is still more than passable from an athletic perspective. Where Stuard stands out from the rest of the pack is his aggressive edge: he plays with a red-hot motor on a down-by-down basis and consistently charges in on a ball-carrier with full speed.

With a 6-foot and 230-pound frame, Stuard is fairly limited from a physical perspective and can struggle in physical situations. His lack of top-notch length hurts his upside in coverage, and he doesn’t have the most expansive tackle radius due to a well-below-average wingspan for the linebacker position of 73 inches. Though he doesn’t project as much more than a Round 6 or 7 prospect, his car-crash style of football gives him special teams upside galore.

Justin Hilliard, Ohio State

Ohio State has four linebackers in the 2021 draft who could realistically see themselves drafted, and though he isn’t the most highly touted of the group, Justin Hilliard still deserves plenty of recognition.

A key special teamer for the Buckeyes over his collegiate career, Hilliard’s experience in the third phase should help him get ample playing time early in his NFL career, even if it isn’t on defense. He is an athletic linebacker with very good downhill speed and quickness when defending the outside-zone run. His fluidity is also apparent on film, as he is consistently able to cover significant ground when moving from sideline to sideline as either a run defender or a coverage linebacker in zone across the middle of the field. Hilliard is also by all accounts a great person, having spent a week in Costa Rica for a community service initiative in May of 2018.

As a result of the likes of Baron Browning, Pete Werner and Tuf Borland fighting for snaps with him, Hilliard fell into a rotational role and is somewhat unproven as a full-time contributor. He can also stand to get more physical, carrying a 6-foot-1, 227-pound frame that can get him in trouble at the line of scrimmage. There are some question marks on his profile, but Hilliard is a talented prospect with high special teams upside and potential in coverage around Rounds 5 or 6.

Riley Cole, South Alabama

Riley Cole had the chance to suit up at his home stadium of Whitney Hancock Stadium in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl this year. He made the most of it, as very few linebackers did as much to boost their stock in the game than he did.

At 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, Cole has a lengthy frame and has done a fantastic job of adding weight in muscle over the course of his collegiate career, being listed at 225 pounds by South Alabama as recently as the start of this year. He plays with a high motor on a down-by-down basis, charging like a heat-seeking missile with downhill quickness and plenty of effort. He is a reliable tackler who wraps up with good form and has enough physicality in his frame needed to consistently bring ball-carriers down. Cole is fluid in space and can change direction well, and he’s also bring experienced as a pass-rusher, taking reps off the edge and displaying good hand activity at the point of attack. He looked good against quality competition at the Senior Bowl, notching six tackles, a tackle for a loss and a pass deflection.

Cole is more reactive than instinctive at this point of his career, and with the jump from Sun Belt playing speed to NFL playing speed, he likely could use a redshirt year or two before getting much consideration to be a full-time starting defender. He has also had issues with durability, suffering both a season-ending ACL tear and knee injury during his time in college. He’ll likely end up as a pick in Round 5 or 6, but Cole has the potential to outdo his eventual draft status over time.

Jamin Davis, Kentucky

A fairly late riser up draft boards, it’s still a shame that Jamin Davis isn’t being talked about nearly as much as he currently is.

If you’re looking for physical tools at the linebacker position on Day 3, Davis is your guy. At 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds, he has tremendous length for his position and brings a large tackle radius with his long arms and physical upside in coverage. He is an athletic specimen who is very athletic for his size, showcasing sideline-to-sideline agility and great quickness when he closes in on a ball-carrier. Davis takes precise angles in run support, calculating his movements effectively and showcases great temperance against outside-zone runs and screens when serving as the playside linebacker.

Davis is still fairly raw, as he can bite hard on play fakes and is occasionally a step too slow to diagnose a play in coverage. He also doesn’t offer much power near the line of scrimmage, often struggling to disengage or hold up his gap at the point of attack. He likely won’t be a Day 1 starter, but as a high-upside selection around Rounds 4 or 5, he could be an intriguing option.