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Bears fourth-round pick Kwiatkoski returns in the Nick of time

CLEVELAND — It was déjà vu, down to the college uniform: the Bears were forced to watch West Virginia game film to get a sense for what they had in their injured first-year player.

This offseason, though, the Bears got their answer before the end of the preseason.

Fourth-round draft pick Nick Kwiatkoski finally made it into an exhibition game Thursday night, playing 28 snaps more than a month after injuring his hamstring in a July 30 practice.

The Browns game marked the inside linebacker’s first moment of live football since the Senior Bowl on Jan. 30. His former college teammate, Kevin White, didn’t get to experience that until his second season, after being forced to have shin surgery in training camp last year.

Bears inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski played Thursday. (AP)

“When you’re sitting on the sideline, things are moving,” Kwiatkoski said after Thursday’s 21-7 win against the Browns. “And it doesn’t stop for you.”

It could take weeks — or probably longer — for Kwiatkoski to make up for lost time. But he’ll get the opportunity; even with a lost preseason, rookies who are fourth-round picks don’t get thrown onto the scrap heap on cut day.

Still, he felt the rush to be productive before rosters were trimmed.

“There’s definitely pressure there,” he said. “Any time you’re hurt, anything can happen. Not always that, but there’s people progressing. … The whole time, (coaches) understood. So it was just kinda working in there slowly.”

The injury occurred on the first day of padded practice in Bourbonnais, when he slipped on the grass while in pass coverage and felt a pop in his hamstring.

“It’s been hard,” he said. “I haven’t really been out there. Just stuff from the sideline, kinda staying on top of the playbook and being mentally into the game.”

The Bears envisioned the 6-2, 242-pounder to contribute on special teams while learning the position behind veterans Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.

Despite having a strong rookie minicamp and offseason program, though, Kwiatkoski’s injury probably prevents him from playing second string to start the season. Kwiatkoski could be one of the Bears’ seven inactive players for Week 1, in fact.

The hope is that he can help them more and more each week.

“I know he’s been champing at the bit to get in there,” Freeman said of Kwiatkoski, who had one tackle against the Browns. “From what I saw in OTAs and minicamp and all that, I already knew he could play. So I really wasn’t worried about it.”

His production is college was indisputable; he started 36 times during his last three seasons, earning all-Big 12 honors as a senior.

“He has instincts,” Freeman said. “Physical. You saw him run through a running back and get to the quarterback (Thursday). I’d say he has a future in the NFL.”

If he does, it will be despite an inauspicious start.

“It’s hard not being out there, especially for the first couple games,” Kwiatkoski said. “To finally get out, it was a relief.”