NFL draft preview: Will Chicago Bears find a fit at linebacker in the first round?

Updated 4/16/2018 6:24 AM
  • Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) tackles Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) during the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta.

    Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) tackles Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) during the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta.

In general, NFL inside linebackers have become smaller, faster and quicker over the years, a concession to the greater emphasis on the passing game.

Inside linebackers no longer are asked to just be run stoppers. The ability to contribute in the pass rush and in coverage also are important as more and more offenses throw the ball with higher frequency than they run it.

In 2017, four teams threw the ball at least 200 more times than they ran it. As a result, the line between inside and outside linebackers has been blurred in many defenses, especially with the increased use of sub packages.

The good news for teams looking for help at inside linebacker is that several in this year's crew project to both spots.

Danny Trevathan is an impact player when he's on the field, but he has missed 11 games in his two seasons with the Bears. Even though Trevathan missed four games last year (one because of a suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit), he still led the team with 89 tackles.

Because of injuries to Trevathan and others, Nick Kwiatkoski has gotten 13 starts since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2016. But he also missed five games last season with a chest injury.

This year he's the favorite to start the season opener next to Trevathan. Kwiatkoski does not have great range in coverage but is effective in smaller areas, especially as a take-on run stuffer.

The depth is adequate. John Timu, re-signed as a restricted free agent, has filled in with nine starts in his three years with the Bears. Jonathan Anderson started three times as a rookie, but most of his playing time the past two years has been on special teams.

Here's a glance at what the Bears might be considering:

Day One: Georgia's Roquan Smith is the consensus top inside linebacker, and he has been linked to the Bears in some mocks. Most talent evaluators, though, believe he'd be a slight reach at No. 8. However, if the Bears trade back a few spots, who knows?

In addition to leading the Bulldogs with 124 tackles in 2017, Smith has excellent speed to match up in coverage and to make plays from sideline to sideline. He also added 5 sacks last year.

Smith ran a 4.51 40 at the combine at 6-feet-1, 236 pounds. He's a tad undersized but more than makes up for that with superior instincts, football IQ and leadership. The consensus is that he has the qualities to take over a defense and become an impact player early in his career.

Alabama's Rashaan Evans and Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch also are considered to be first-round talents and likely will be gone before the Bears' second-round pick.

Day Two: Currently, the Bears' only second-day pick is 39th overall, and that's too soon for Virginia's Micah Kiser. But his production is impossible to overlook.

He piled up 396 tackles in his final three seasons, along with 33 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and 8 forced fumbles. At 6-2 and 240, he's the closest thing to an old-school "Mike" linebacker among the top prospects.

Kiser doesn't have great movement skills or top-end speed, and he won't provide much help in coverage. But he's a physical tackler and has the toughness and strength to win at the point of attack vs. the run.

Day Three: Evaluators are all over the board on Iowa's Josey Jewell, some listing him as high as the mid-third round, while others predict the sixth or seventh round. His 4.82 40 time at the combine knocked him way down on some draft boards, but Jewell redeemed himself three weeks later with a 4.68 at Iowa's pro day.

He missed five games last year with a shoulder injury but had 250 tackles in the previous two seasons. The 6-1, 234-pound Jewell is instinctive, an all-out competitor and a team leader who called defensive signals for the Hawkeyes.

He may not test as a starting-caliber NFL player, but he looks like one on tape.

Ohio State's Jerome Baker is a better athlete and might have more upside than Jewell, but he's not a better football player right now. He does, however, run a 4.53 40 with a 36.5-inch vertical, and he won't turn 22 until the end of the 2018 season.

But at 6-1 and 229, he doesn't play a physical game and probably is a down-the-road project, although he could excel in sub packages or a hybrid role right away. In a base 4-3, he's likely limited to the "Will" spot.

Bears depth chart

Danny Trevathan; Nick Kwiatkoski; John Timu; Jonathan Anderson

Bears draft need: Moderate-to-urgent

Bears draft picks: Round 1 (eighth overall); Round 2 (39th); Round 4 (105th) and (115th); Round 5 (145th); Round 6 (181st); Round 7 (224th)

2018 salary-cap situation: The Bears are 20th in the league in spending on linebackers, including outside and inside, according to Trevathan, at $7.15 million for 2018, is the only inside 'backer making over $1 million.

• Twitter: @BobLeGere

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