Bears Offseason Outlook: Inside Linebacker

Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. You can find them all here.
(670 The Score) Over the past four years, Bears inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski always prepared himself as a starter -- even as he filled a reserve role.

Kwiatkoski finally got his big opportunity in 2019, starting eight games, including the final seven. He proved he belonged, posting 68 tackles, three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble for the season. In the final seven games, he recorded 49 tackles, including five for loss.

For the 26-year-old Kwiatkoski, it was a successful audition ahead of free agency.

"Honestly, it's hard to look back," Kwiatkoski said. "But, yeah, I am. It's one of those things, I'm proud that I could step in and not have a drop-off."

The Bears have a pair of decisions looming at inside linebacker this offseason. They appear set to pick between the respective price tags of Kwiatkoski and fellow free agent-to-be Danny Trevathan as they weigh who will line up to Roquan Smith in 2020.

Who's back: Roquan Smith, 22; Joel Iyiegbuniwe, 24; Josh Woods, 23
Free agents: Nick Kwiatkoski, 26; Danny Trevathan, 29; Kevin Pierre-Louis, 28; Devante Bond, 26
How they got here

During the 2016 offseason, the Bears signed Trevathan to a four-year deal, adding a talented linebacker and instrumental veteran presence to their defense. 

Trevathan's impact in the locker room has been something his teammates have revered. During a practice in 2016, Trevathan's Super Bowl ring arrived from the Denver Broncos on the back field of Halas Hall. He showed it to teammates and spoke of his desire to win another in Chicago.

The Bears weren't built to win in Trevathan's first two seasons in Chicago, but he was a key figure in their breakthrough in 2018, when they went 12-4 and won the NFC North. Now, Trevathan's future is uncertain as the Bears come off an 8-8 season and injuries have taken their toll.

Trevathan was productive when healthy in 2019, recording 70 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble in nine starts. But a gruesome elbow injury ended his season in November, which created Kwiatkoski's opportunity.

Kwiatkoski formed a strong tandem with Smith, with both players showcasing their abilities in the box and coverage. For Kwiatkoski, his strong presence in coverage was part of his growth over four seasons.

Smith suffered a torn pectoral during the Bears' win over the Cowboys on Dec. 5, an injury that required surgery. The Bears hope he will be ready to return in July.

Quote to note

"He's a talented player. And on a football team, you always want to make tough decisions. That means you have good players."

-- Bears coach Matt Nagy on Kwiatkoski's future

What's ahead

The Bears have great interest in re-signing Kwiatkoski, a source said. But will get a deal done?

Kwiatkoski is set to hit the open market at 26 after flashing his upside as an every-down starter last season. He will likely be targeted by a number of teams looking to fill voids.

Kwiatkoski's youth and potential are appealing to the Bears. It's also worth noting that general manager Ryan Pace has been reluctant to pay significant money to a player 30 or older, and Trevathan will turn 30 in March.

Pace and his brass will need to make cuts to open up salary cap space. Cornerback Prince Amukamara ($9 million) and receiver Taylor Gabriel ($4.5 million) are candidates to be released to create cap savings.

The Bears also need to add depth at inside linebacker as Smith works back from his surgery. Pierre-Louis made an impression on the Bears as a reserve linebacker and special teams contributor. He should be retained by Chicago.

The Bears also have two developmental players at inside linebacker in Iyiegbuniwe, a 2018 fourth-round pick, and Woods. They will each receive opportunities during Smith's time off the field.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.