Sixth in a series
The Bears went into the 2017 season feeling pretty good about their inside linebacker crew, but it took just one game for that to change.
Productive veteran Jerrell Freeman, the Bears' leading tackler in 2016, was lost for the season with a torn chest muscle in Week 1 last year, when he also suffered a concussion while leading the team with 10 tackles. Eight weeks later, Freeman was suspended 10 games for violating, for the second straight year, the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Tuesday, the Bears parted ways with the 31-year-old Freeman, saving his $3.5 million base salary for 2018, but leaving a potential gap in the middle of the league's No. 10 defense (in total yards).
Freeman is still an above-average starter when he's on the field, but he played in just 13 games the past two years, missing four games in 2016 because of his first PED suspension.
Like Freeman, Danny Trevathan was brought in before the 2016 season as a veteran free agent. He's also been extremely productive when healthy, but he's missed 11 games in two years as a Bear, including five last season. He still led the Bears with 89 tackles in 2017 and is one of the team's emotional leaders.
Trevathan is a gamer and, although he doesn't turn 28 until early March, he's already got a lengthy injury history.
The injuries and suspensions have allowed Nick Kwiatkoski to make 13 starts since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2016. Barring offseason additions, more will be asked this year of Kwiatkoski, who is more effective vs. the run than in coverage.
Christian Jones, who's unrestricted, has been an underrated, valuable and versatile utility linebacker and special-teamer in four years with the Bears. He's missed just one career game and has started a total of 31 times inside and outside since going undrafted out of Florida State.
Without Freeman and possibly Jones, there isn't much depth, and backup John Timu is restricted.
Given the almost total lack of talent available in free agency -- it's NaVorro Bowman, Avery Williamson and a bunch of guys -- the Bears might need to hang on to the athletic and agile Jones as insurance.
The draft doesn't provide much wow factor at inside linebacker after Georgia's Roquan Smith and Alabama's Rashaan Evans. But there is impressive depth, with potential starters available early on Day 3 (Rounds 4-7).
Smith is a complete linebacker who makes plays vs. the run from sideline to sideline (137 tackles), is effective dropping into coverage and also had 6 ½ sacks last year. The only knock on him is that, at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he's a bit undersized, but he'll still be a Round One pick. Evans doesn't have quite the same range and won't get drafted as early, but he does all the things Smith does and has more size and growth potential.
Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch and Iowa's Josey Jewell could be second-day options. After injuries cut his 2016 season in half, Vander Esch emerged as a multitalented junior in 2017 with 141 tackles, 4 sacks and 3 interceptions. Jewell was a three-year starter with more than 120 tackles each year. Though he missed some time with injuries in 2017, he still had 13 ½ tackles for loss, 4 ½ sacks, 11 pass breakups and 2 interceptions.
Wisconsin has a pair of Day 3 options. Garret Dooley probably projects inside in the NFL, although he had 7½ sacks last season. Teammate Jack Cichy missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL but was impressive in the previous two seasons. His combine medical will be highly scrutinized.
• Bob LeGere is a senior writer at Pro Football Weekly. Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere or @PFWeekly.