The Chicago Bears started their roster reconstruction this week as they released veteran inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
Freeman played two seasons with the team and tested positive twice for performance-enhancing drugs and missed all but one game of the 2017 season. His signing in 2016 was seen as a major upgrade at the position as he was going to help solidify the rushing defense along with fellow signee Danny Trevathan.
With Freeman’s release, the Bears will have several options available to fill his departure.
The most favorable choice to replace Freeman could be young Nick Kwiatkoski who filled in to replace Freeman this past season starting in six of the 11 games he appeared in.
Kwiatkoski has been a pleasant surprise over the last two season on the Bears defense as he has been consistent in defending against the run and has improved from year one to year two. In 2017, he registered two sacks and a forced-fumble in a two-game span and once recovered from a chest injury he averaged five tackles per game.
The other advantage of having Kwiatkoski replace Freeman is his familiarity with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system. Heading into his third season, he will have already two years of playing in the same scheme and has already proven that he can be the defensive play-caller on the field. Once Freeman was lost, it was Kwiatkoski who was in charge of getting the play called and the defense lined up properly.
Another in-house option at inside linebacker for the Bears could be Christian Jones.
Jones started the majority of the season filling in for both Trevathan or Kwiatkoski starting in 11 games. He flashed on the field at times as he had two sacks, a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and registered 84 total tackles. His best play came when the Bears were at full strength on defense and were able to get after the quarterback. He had nine or more tackles in three games in which the Bears did not allow an offensive touchdown.
Just like Kwiatkoski, Jones also has familiarity and experience with the Bears defensive scheme but offers more versatility. Jones has the frame to play both inside and outside linebacker and is better at rushing the quarterback. One issue is that he will be a free agent this off-season and will draw suitors due to high-level of performance with one of the NFL’s better defenses of 2017.
Bowman could reunite with his former defensive coordinator in Fagio as the two were highly successful together during their tenures in San Francisco. Fangio coached Bowman for four seasons with the 49ers in which they consistently had one of the NFL’s best defenses.
He was named to three consecutive All-Pro teams and two consecutive Pro Bowl teams from 2011 to 2014. During that three year span, he averaged 148 total tackles, three sacks, and an interception.
It was the 2014 NFC Championship where Bowman’s career was nearly ended by a vicious knee injury in which he tore both his ACL and MCL and missed the entire 2014 season. He returned in 2015 to play in all 16 games while setting a career high in tackles along with being named again to the Pro-Bowl and All-Pro team. He suffered a torn Achilles the following season and will be 30 when the 2018 season starts.
Bowman could be the right fit at the right price for the Bears.
If the Bears turn to free agency to fill the void at inside linebacker, one high-end replacement could be Preston Brown of the Buffalo Bills. In 2017, he led the NFL in total tackles with 144. In his four seasons with the Bills, he has averaged 126 total tackles and has done so playing a 3-4 defensive scheme during that time. Another selling point for the Bears is his durability as he has played in and started 48 consecutive with Buffalo.
It is those consistent numbers that will make Brown a highly-sought after free agent if he does not sign with the Bills or receives the franchise tag before March 14. One drawback to Brown’s play has been his lack of impact plays over his career as he has recorded just one sack in his career and has only forced just one turnover the last two seasons.
The Bears could address the position in the draft and target the number one inside linebacker prospect in Roquan Smith of Georgia. He was the leader of the Georgia defense, was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and won the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in college football.
Smith is similar to Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd as his biggest attribute is his speed and ability to close on plays.
With many different needs to be addressed during the draft, it may be hard for the Bears to draft Smith with the eighth overall pick, but he could possibly fall to the second round depending on the offensive heavy draft this year.