Part 9 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs
For all the criticism of Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s draft record, he has been very good at choosing inside linebackers.
Roquan Smith, the No. 8 pick in 2018, has been everything the Bears wanted and fits in perfectly with their history of stars at the position. He had his best season in 2020, and the Bears are banking on him to be a fixture for a decade. He’s headed toward a massive long-term contract extension.
With Smith’s versatility, the Bears can afford to patch together the rest of their depth chart at inside linebacker. They’ll probably take a flier on a late-round pick in the draft next week, but other needs loom much larger.
Smith played 95% of the defensive snaps last season, and nine-year veteran Danny Trevathan played 78%. While Smith should continue carrying that load, it would be ideal to cut back on Trevathan. That’s where an upstart in the sixth round would get an opportunity to compete with Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Josh Woods and Christian Jones for playing time.
Three inside linebackers are projected to go in the first round, led by Penn State star Micah Parsons. The Bears have only three picks in the first 160, so they won’t be eyeing any players of that caliber. Instead, they could consider an inside linebacker with one of their four sixth-round picks.
That’s a tough place to find contributors. The last Bear picked in the sixth or seventh round to become a full-time starter was offensive tackle Charles Leno, who went 246th overall in 2014.
The high end of whom the Bears could land that late is Texas A&M linebacker Buddy Johnson.
ESPN ranked him as the 23rd-best player at his position after a senior season of 85 tackles (7.5 for loss), two forced fumbles and an interception. He’s a hard-hitting run-stopper with quite a bit of work to do in pass coverage, but anyone available at this point in the draft will require significant development.
Johnson was the clear leader of the Texas A&M defense, which is something the Bears always look for, and he had an impressive pro day, including a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash.
Other intriguing prospects who could be within reach are Purdue’s Derrick Barnes, Mississippi State’s Erroll Thompson and Kansas State’s Justin Hughes.
It’s not that inside linebacker is unimportant; it’s just that the Bears desperately need help on the offensive line, at wide receiver, in the secondary and at quarterback. And as long as Smith stays healthy, the Bears can probably get away with putting this off until next year.
Grading the Bears’ need: Low. Inside linebacker is the franchise’s most storied position, but the Bears can’t worry about it now. They’re well-equipped with Roquan Smith, and they’ll be fine if Danny Trevathan can give them one more decent season.
On the roster: Smith, Trevathan, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Josh Woods, Christian Jones.
The five best prospects: Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, LSU’s Jabril Cox, Missouri’s Nick Bolton.
Keep an eye on: Purdue’s Derrick Barnes. Over his sophomore and junior seasons combined, he put up 155 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He played only six games last season but still had 54 tackles (5.5 for loss) and an interception.
Close to home: Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher. Fisher averaged 100-plus tackles per season in college and had 10 forced fumbles in 48 games. Some considered him a future star when he burst onto the scene for the Wildcats in 2017, but now he’s expected to be a Day 3 pick.