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Bears LB Nick Kwiatkoski hoping tough rookie lessons pay off in 2017

BOURBONNAIS — Whenever linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski looks back, he sees just how far he has come.

Kwiatkoski had a pretty full NFL rookie experience last season. He came in overwhelmed (“My head was spinning.”). He missed most of training camp and the first three preseason games after suffering a hamstring injury in the first practice in pads. And when he finally was active in Week 3, he started against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium and was in over his head.

“I remember that game very clearly — something I wasn’t proud of,” Kwiatkoski said. “I looked slow at times. I caught myself thinking too much instead of playing. But you’ve got to start somewhere. I’m glad I built on it since then.’’

Indeed, he did. The Bears drafted Kwiatkoski in the fourth round in 2016 in part for his football aptitude — and the ability to learn well, adjust and respond. He was much improved when he started the last six games for Jerrell Freeman (suspension) and Danny Trevathan (injury), had a productive offseason and opened his second training camp in much better shape to contribute instead of place-hold.

Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (44) and defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) tackle Rob Kelley of the Redskins last season. go, Illinois. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

As general manager Ryan Pace noted Wednesday at his camp-opening news conference, one solution to the Bears’ injury problem is depth, and Kwiatkoski could be a prime example. A year ago, he was a big drop from Freeman and Trevathan. If either can’t go at any point this season, Kwiatkoski should be more than just a replacement-level player. Even in early non-padded practices, it’s easy to see that Kwiatkoski is a much more confident player.

“I was talking [about that] to some guys today,” Kwiatkoski said Friday after practice at Olivet Nazarene University. “Coming into camp last year, you don’t know what to expect. You really don’t know anything. Coming in this year, the comfort level is [completely] different.

“The plays, putting stuff in, everything clicks a lot faster than it did last year. On the field, there’s less thinking and more playing. I’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’ve definitely come a long way.”

But don’t take it from him. Kwiatkoski’s teammates and coaches notice the difference.

“He’s ready; I like him,” Trevathan said. “Nick came in with the right attitude. He was thrown into a tough position, but he handled it well. You want to see that in young players, and he blossomed a lot. He’s going to be a great player.”

Actual regular-season games will tell the true tale of Kwiatkoski’s improvement. But already, inside-linebackers coach Glenn Pires can see the difference in the 24-year-old from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.

“He’s making faster decisions; I already see that,” Pires said. “Quicker decisions and more physical decisions. That’s a big difference.”

It remains to be seen if Kwiatkoski can develop into an established NFL linebacker. But his ability to learn from his mistakes is a good indicator he can make it.

“There are going to be mistakes,” Trevathan said. “We call them dumb mistakes when you make them repetitively. That’s stupidity. But he’s real good at finding where he does make a mistake and not doing it again. And that’s what you want to see from a young player.”

The big question now is whether Kwiatkoski will get the same opportunity to improve as he did last season. He’s getting prime reps in practice as Trevathan is eased back from a knee injury. But Freeman and Trevathan have been every-snap players when healthy.

Of course, the Bears didn’t have the same Kwiatkoski behind them then. And defensive coordinator Vic Fangio indicated last season he would find snaps for Kwiatkoski if he deserved them.

“It’s a good situation,” Kwiatkoski said. “Whatever happens with Danny, we’re working together. Him being back is great. Right now it’s about everybody getting better. Whatever happens, happens.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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