Nick Kwiatkoski | Jeff Driskel
© Mike Dinovo | 2019 Nov 10
Nick Kwiatkoski | Jeff Driskel © Mike Dinovo | 2019 Nov 10
With their first of three fourth-round draft picks in 2016, the Bears selected a rugged downhill linebacker from West Virginia named Nick Kwiatkoski. He arrived in Chicago less than six weeks after plug-and-play free-agent signees Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, who’d just received contracts worth a combined $40-plus million to transform one of the league’s worst position groups for a franchise with the NFL’s longest LB tradition.
Kwiatkoski, then, clearly would have to make his first mark on special teams. Unfortunately, he’d face another early obstacle, a hamstring injury wiping out the entirety of his first NFL training camp. Who knows how differently things might have gone if not for the guidance of Trevathan.
“I missed the whole training camp, but he helped me learn how to be a pro, really,” Kwiatkoski told Bears Insider Wednesday, the same day the Bears placed the impending free agent Trevathan on injured reserve, marking the potential end of his Bears tenure. "To have a guy like that ... it helped a lot."
Fast-forward two years. The Bears had just cut Freeman, spending the eighth overall pick on his replacement, Roquan Smith, then doubling up at the ILB position in that draft with the selection of fourth-rounder Joel Iyiegbuniwe.
Smith was a no-doubter, the reigning Butkus Award winner who projects as a perennial Pro Bowler. But the impetus in drafting “Iggy” at least partially was to bolster the speed and coverage ability on the defense’s second level. When Trevathan and Freeman were unavailable, Kwiatkoski would fill in admirably, but it appeared his ceiling might be as a special-teams stud and run-game thumper.
Less than two years later, Kwiatkoski is the last of the lot not only standing but shining on ‘D.’ Smith suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 14 and was sent to injured reserve, where Trevathan joined him Wednesday with the elbow injury that’s sidelined him for the past nearly five full games. All Kwiatkoski has done in their absence is reach a new level of play, after at least two years of being an afterthought on defense.
“You can see that. I think we felt that early on with Kwit in training camp,” Matt Nagy said Wednesday of Kwiatkoski’s strides, especially in the passing game. “He came in in really good shape. You could see him flying around, you noticed it in preseason, training camp and then when he had that opportunity against the Vikings you felt it there against a team that runs the ball a lot. So probably that’s the biggest place is just being able to cover backs out of the backfield, because we all know he can play the run game really well.”
What few foresaw was Kwiatkoski developing the dynamism the Bears invested so much in Smith and Trevathan to add defensively. His three sacks — including their lone takedown of Aaron Rodgers in the playoff-eliminating defeat at Lambeau Sunday — are a career high and rank fourth on the team. But even more notable, Kwiatkoski is among the NFL leaders — regardless of position — for his work in coverage, where only San Francisco 49ers S Jaquiski Tartt has permitted fewer yards per target than his 3.6 on 30 coverage chances. That’s better than future Hall of Fame S Earl Thomas and New England Patriots stud LB Jamie Collins, to name a few.
“The biggest thing is just going into a game and having an idea what they’re going to run against you,”Kwiatkoski said. “You never really know for sure, but the studying, just getting tendencies and little things like that go a long way.”
“The biggest thing is just going into a game and having an idea what they’re going to run against you,”Kwiatkoski said. “You never really know for sure, but the studying, just getting tendencies and little things like that go a long way.”
Kwiatkoski was still lamenting Wednesday a dropped would-be interception roughly 20 yards downfield late in Sunday’s game. We reminded him that’s a position the Bears likely wouldn’t have been comfortable putting him in to begin as recently as last season.
“It’s a good feeling,” he admitted, to hear that. “I haven’t really went back and looked at things, but it’s one of those where, whatever they asked me to do, I’m going to do it regardless. Still, I wanted [the interception], but a drop’s a drop.”
Indeed, same as a rise is a rise, and few Bears have done so more impressively this season than Kwiatkoski, who must have a knack for timing considering it has come in his first NFL contract season.
“I really don’t know what the future holds,” he said,“but I know the next two games could play a big part in that.”
How the Bears handle myriad complex contract decisions at the LB position will be the center of offseason attention on the defensive side of the ball. This much already seems clear, though: Kwiatkoski’s future has never been brighter.