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Chicago Bears 2021 Position Battles: Has inside linebacker depth been solved?

Next up in our 11-part training camp preview series is the inside linebacker position.

NFL: MAY 16 Bears Rookie Minicamp Photo by Robin Alam/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Back on February 14 when I did my Chicago Bears roster turnover series, I was concerned with the depth the team had at inside linebacker heading into the 2021 season. Reserves Josh Woods and Joel Iyiegbuniwe only played 69 snaps on defense between them a year ago, and considering Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith missed 192 plays (only 4 of which were Roquan’s), the Bears usually went big nickel instead of playing either Woods or Iggy.

Those same four are all returning, but what are the odds that Smith and Trevathan start every game for a consecutive season? The Bears had to find a trustworthy number three to fill in, and that’s exactly what they did.

Roster Locks

“With the cap dropping the Bears might luck into a released veteran looking for a reserve role in 2021,” is what I wrote back in February, and the Bears found that guy in free agency. The Detroit Lions cut former Bear Christian Jones to save $2.55 million of cap space, and weeks later the Bears bought the 30-year old Jones back to the Windy City on a 1-year deal worth $1.2 million. Jones started 42 of 45 games for Detroit the last three years, and before that he had 31 starts in 4 years with the Bears. He brings experience and positional versatility (ILB/OLB) and so far has looked like a quality signing.

Smith and Trevathan will be back starting at the Jack and Mike inside linebacker spots, and under Vic Fangio the Mike would line up on the strong side of the formation with the Jack to the open side. While it’s possible that new defensive coordinator Sean Desai views these positions as interchangeable (as his mentor did depending on his personnel), my guess is the speedier Roquan will play the open side.

A good bet to make it

The Bears may be reluctant to play Iyiegbuniwe on D, but no Chicago player has played more on special teams the last three seasons than he has. With Jones in the fold, the Bears could keep their ILB4 for his third phase ability and that gives Iggy the edge.

On the bubble

The Bears have usually kept four at this position during the Matt Nagy era, but in 2019 they opened up with six. However, with the way their roster is shaping up this offseason I can’t see more than four making it.

The Bears signed Austin Calitro, who has played three years in the NFL with three different teams, and he has the experience to push for a roster spot with 42 career games and 9 starts. He was with the Broncos and Fangio a year ago, so he should feel at home in the Bears new scheme under Desai. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Calitro beat out Iggy for the number four spot.

Josh Woods had been around the Bears since 2018, but he’ll need to show something on defense this offseason to stick around for a fourth season.

Undrafted free agent Caleb Johnson will be fighting for a spot on the 16-man practice squad.