Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace went out of his way to restructure the inside linebacker unit this off-season, making near-wholesale changes to what many considered the weakest position on the team last year.
Pace was aggressive in free agency, signing the top two ILBs on the open market, then invested a mid-round selection in the draft on a linebacker with long-term upside.
Chicago is the city that gave birth to the middle linebacker position, which has Bears fans salivating at the potential of this new-look unit.
With training camp just around the corner, let's break down each of the ILBs who will soon be participating in Bourbonnais.
Trevathan was Pace's big prize in free agency. He's a 26-year-old ILB coming off a championship season with the Broncos, one who brings speed, youth and a winning pedigree to the most important position on defense.
At 6-1, 240, Trevathan is smaller than your typical 3-4 ILB but remember, coordinator Vic Fangio prefers speed and quickness over bulk. In San Francisco, Fangio coached one of the most dominant 3-4 duos in the league in Navorro Bowman (6-0, 242) and Patrick Willis (6-1, 240), so Trevathan should be a solid fit.
Against the run, Trevathan plays like a much bigger player. He aggressively attacks holes, crashing the line of scrimmage instead of waiting for ball carriers to come to him, and he's outstanding at shedding blocks.
Yet he's even more dangerous in coverage, where his quickness, agility and intelligence allow him to excel. When you can cover Rob Gronkowski man-to-man, then you know you're playing at an elite level.
Off the field, Trevathan brings confidence, swagger and a winning mentality, which should provide a boost to a Bears locker room that has lacked leadership the past few seasons.
"We know what it takes," Trevathan said during OTAs. "Coming from a winning atmosphere, I hate losing, period. Even when I was losing, I hated it. I tried to give my best no matter what. To be here and to have a new start right here with a defense like this. I’m all about our attitude and the way we attack practice and go out there and put together great days. Attitude reflects leadership, man, and we’ve got some guys who are hungry. I can see it every day."
During off-season activities, Trevathan was a vocal leader on the field, while showing off his range and explosiveness. Bears fans are going to love him.
Freeman is a four-year NFL veteran whose playing experience runs much deeper, as he spent his first four pro seasons in the Canadian Football League. He signed with the Colts in 2012 and instantly became one of the best defensive players in Indianapolis.
From 2012-2015, Freeman never tallied less than 95 tackles and had three campaigns of 100-plus tackles (145, 126, 112). Also on the smaller side (6-1, 240), Freeman has good quickness and plays a downhill brand of football.
Against the run, he should have an immediate impact. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Freeman was the second best ILB in the league last year against the run, behind only Luke Keuchly.
He also brings value as a pass rusher in blitz packages and has 12.0 sacks in four NFL seasons, including 3.0 last season and 5.5 in 2013. He's also no slouch in coverage and was very impressive in man sets during OTAs and minicamp.
Like Trevathan, Freeman has winning experience, having already played in six playoff games, including the 2014 AFC Championship.
The Bears last season rolled out Shea McClellin and Christian Jones as the team's starting linebackers and the results were expectedly shoddy. Barring injury, Trevathan and Freeman could quickly develop into one of the top 3-4 ILB duos in the NFL, which would stabilize Chicago's defense and once again make inside linebacker a point of pride for Bears fans.
The Bears used a third-round pick in this year's draft on former WVU linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. A three-year starter for the Mountaineers, Kwiatkoski racked up 275 tackles the past three years combined.
At 6-1, 242, he fits the Fangio mold, while his play style is that of a throwback, hard-nosed inside linebacker. A weight-room freak, Kwiatkoski plays with intelligence, showing solid read-and-recognition ability. He uses solid angles of attack and plays with aggression.
Kwiatkoski isn't a physical specimen and did not stand out at the 2016 Scouting Combine but he has a lot of upside as a technically sound, physical, downhill inside linebacker. He worked with the second and third teams during OTAs and will be one of the primary backups to Trevathan and Freeman. Kwiatkoski will also provide immediate value on special teams.
A 2015 undrafted free agent out of TCU, Anderson broke camp last year on Chicago's practice squad and was elevated to the active roster in Week 6. He played 11 games his rookie year, with three starts. He finished 2015 with 36 combined tackles, 2 PBUs and 1 interception, while adding 3 tackles on special teams.
Anderson worked as part of Fangio's constant ILB rotation, working mainly on passing downs. In his first NFL game, he intercepted two passes, although the second pick was waived off due to penalty. His best game came in Week 9, when he led the team with 12 total tackles.
At 6-1, 231, Anderson doesn't have the size to consistently be effective in his run fits and he struggled at the point of attack last year. He is solid in coverage, where he's able to utilize his size, and he does have value on special teams, so Anderson should be able to maintain his roster spot with a strong showing in training camp and the preseason.
Timu was a 2015 undrafted free agent out of Washington who broke camp on the 53-man roster last season. He was sent to the practice squad in Week 5 but elevated back to the active roster in Week 15.
Timu started the last three games of his rookie season and showed very well against the run. In his first game as a starter he led the team with 9 tackles and finished the year with 24 tackles in three starts.
He's well above average as a run stopper, where he can fully utilize his attacking mind set, but Timu doesn't have the agility or awareness to stay on the field on passing downs. Opposing offenses exploited him in passing situations late last year.
He's a one-dimensional player but what Timu does well, he does very well. If he can prove his value on special teams, Timu could convince the coaching staff to keep five ILBs on the 53-man roster.
Barrow was signed by the Bears last off-season, coming over from Denver where he played under John Fox. A pure special teams player, Barrow has played in 32 games his first two NFL seasons, with one start.
He didn't play a single defensive snap for the Bears in 2015 but he was a core member of the special teams coverage units. Barrow finished last year with 7 total special teams tackles, fifth most on the team.
Barrow took reps with the second team during veteran minicamp, so it's clear the coaching staff sees value in him. He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at the 2014 Scouting Combine, so his speed is an asset in the third phase.
It's a crowded position but if Barrow continues to show his worth on special teams, he could send a player like Timu back to the practice squad.
Grace was signed this off-season as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame. He earned the starting ILB gig for the Irish his junior year and led the team in tackles through the first six weeks of the 2013 season before shattering his leg in four different places. The injury forced him to sit out the 2014 campaign.
Grace returned in 2015 but was used on a part-time basis, collecting just 26 tackles in 10 games as a senior. The 6-2, 253-pounder will be battling in training camp for a spot on the practice squad.null