All we really know about rookie linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski is that he’s one of the guys the Bears took instead of Dak Prescott in the fourth round of the draft.
Unfair as it might be — to Kwiatkoski and Bears general manager Ryan Pace — that’s the reality with the Bears in a 2-8 hole and struggling to show they’re making progress in John Fox’s second season. Who knows what the situation will be a year or two from now — three years ago today, third-round pick Nick Foles was a revelation in his second year with the Eagles, with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions on his way to leading the NFL in passer rating; today’s he’s a back-up to the 24th-ranked passer in the league, the Chiefs’ Alex Smith.
But for now, Kwiatkoski and the Bears’ other two fourth-round picks, safety Deon Bush and cornerback Deiondre Hall, have the unenviable tag of not being Dak Prescott. (It wouldn’t be the most egregious oversight in modern Bears history — in 1979 the Bears were preparing to take Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana in the third round of the draft, when they changed course and took Georgia running back Willie McClendon instead.)
The Bears have been criticized for not drafting a quarterback at all in last year’s draft, but the explanation has merit — they needed too much help elsewhere, especially on defense. Indeed they did, and addressed it by drafting six defensive players. So far, only first-round pick Leonard Floyd had justified his draft status, but it’s early. As for the fourth-round guys, Hall showed promise early in the season but has missed the last six games with an ankle injury. Bush played one defensive snap in the first eight games, but started in place of Harold Jones-Quartey last week against the Giants and appears to have earned a second shot.
And Kwiatkoski? He was inactive in the first two games after missing most of training camp with a hamstring injury. He played 63-of-131 defensive snaps in place of injured starter Danny Trevathan against the Cowboys and Lions in Weeks 3-4. But since then, he’s played sparingly — not at all on defense against the Giants last week.
But that will change this week, when Kwiatkoski replaces Jerrell Freeman, who begins a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. It’s a golden opportunity for Kwiatkoski — Freeman is the defensive play-caller who is on the field for virtually every snap, and Kwiatkoski is expected to assume that role. And unless Kwiatkoski proves he’s not ready for it, it’s a four-game audition.
“His first game in the regular season wasn’t so good [he started but only played 18 snaps against the Cowboys]. But the snaps since then have been good,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s been getting practice time. I think he’ll be ready to go.”
But even Fangio doesn’t know what he’s got. “He hasn’t played a lot,” he said when asked if he’s seen indications that Kwiatkoski will be the player the Bears thought he could be. “I just think he’s grown since the start of the season — since he started practicing [after the hamstring].
“Prior to the injury he was struggling learning everything, fitting it all together. I think he’s gotten past that point now. He’s got a better understanding of what we’re doing and what he needs to do. We’ll find out.”
For the Bears, Kwiatkoski’s opportunity is a chance to see what they’ve got in the rookie from West Virginia, provide evidence they draft and develop well —the keys to their rebuilding — and make sure that the fourth round of the 2016 draft is known more for what they got than what they missed.