Second-year inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski is an example of the talent and depth that has the Bears excited about the potential of this year's defense.
The 2016 fourth-round draft pick missed almost all of his first training camp with a hamstring injury but was in the starting lineup by Week Three after Danny Trevathan was sidelined with a thumb injury.
Kwiatkoski struggled in that start. But late in the year, the Bears' other inside linebacker, Jerrell Freeman, began a four-week PED suspension. A week later, Trevathan suffered a season-ending ruptured right patellar tendon. So Kwiatkoski stepped back in and started the final six games.
"Nick came on last year, if you watched him throughout the year," Freeman said. "I really wasn't worried about the depth too much even last year."
Trevathan has yet to fully recover from that knee injury in late November, so there's an excellent chance Kwiatkoski will start alongside Freeman in Week One.
With a year in the system and the experience of seven starts, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Kwiatkoski is much more prepared to step into the starting lineup and play at a level similar to Trevathan.
"I've come a long way," Kwiatkoski said. "Just going back and looking at film of myself from my first game until now, there's a big jump. Being injured last year and not being able to (practice), it definitely put me behind early in the season."
Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones were the Bears' starters at inside linebacker in Thursday night's preseason finale, and they played like it. Jones tied with another Bears backup inside linebacker, John Timu, for game honors with 6 tackles. Kwiatkoski had 2 sacks and seemed genuinely excited about playing in a game that was meaningful only to players fighting for a roster spot, a group that doesn't include him.
"I love playing," he said. "So that's not a (problem) I have to worry about. I have fun either way."
As with most injuries, the Bears have been vague about Trevathan's status, but Kwiatkoski is ready either way.
"Just having a year of experience with those games I played last year goes a long way," he said. "Getting that experience and having the off-season definitely helped out a lot."
It's not just knowing his own assignments but how he and everyone around him fits in the defense.
"The biggest thing is knowing what's going on around me," Kwiatkoski said. "Knowing what the safeties are doing and the D-linemen; just having better knowledge helps you play fast, knowing where your help is."
Freeman was by far the Bears' leading tackler last year, with 127, despite his four-game suspension. But he said he could see signs of improvement from Kwiatkoski, who was seventh on the team with 52 tackles, when they started alongside each other in the final two games of 2016.
The 31-year-old Freeman, as a six-year veteran, got to watch Thursday's game from the sidelines, and he liked what he saw from the younger guys playing his position.
"Young guys running around, who love to play football," Freeman said. "Knowing their responsibilities and going out there and playing some downhill football. I like to see it."
He might be seeing a lot more of it from Kwiatkoski this year.
• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.