Will Chicago Bears' Kush, Kwiatkoski keep starting jobs?
BOURBONNAIS -- Veterans OG Eric Kush and ILB Nick Kwiatkoski are taking their training-camp snaps with the first team, but their grasps on starting jobs are a bit tenuous.
Are they long-term starters, or just place holders for highly regarded draft picks?
Almost a week into camp, first-round draft pick Roquan Smith is still unsigned and last year's leading tackler, seven-year veteran Danny Trevathan, is still nursing a hamstring injury. Expectations are that Smith, the eighth overall pick, will join Trevathan as the starting inside linebackers at some point. But not now.
The longer the rookie is away, the more difficult it could be to unseat Kwiatkoski, a fourth-round pick out of West Virginia in 2016 who has started 13 games. Smith is faster and quicker than Kwiatkoski, and he has rare cover skills for an inside linebacker. But Kwiatkoski has the experience of having already played in 25 NFL games, and he's entering his third year in coordinator Vic Fangio's defense. His 13 starts came when Trevathan or former starter Jerrell Freeman were unavailable, so he's comfortable stepping in and getting the job done.
"That's one thing that's hard to teach, is getting that in-game, full-speed action," said the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Kwiatkoski, who was eighth on last year's top-10 defense with 45 tackles despite starting just six games. "When you can get in there and do that, it definitely builds experience. You know what to expect, and being in the system for a couple years, you just play faster. You're quicker to react, and you're more comfortable."
Kush has started just five games in his five previous seasons, including four for the Bears in 2016. He was tabbed to be the top backup at both OG spots last season before a hamstring injury in training camp wiped out his season.
He's the No. 1 left guard for now, but if second-round draft pick James Daniels makes a rapid conversion from college center to NFL guard, Kush will have a tough time hanging on to the job. Kush, though, is unlikely to relinquish what might be the best chance of his career to be a full-time starter without a fight.
"I've got a (darn) good thing going on here," he said. "Just working my butt off, doing the best I can trying to improve something every day and keep working."
The 6-foot-4, 317-pound Kush doesn't consider last year's stint on injured reserve a waste, as he used it to get stronger, more flexible, fine tune his body and work on his technique. He was originally a sixth-round draft pick of the Chiefs in 2013 (when Nagy was the K.C. QB coach), and he spent two years in the system before he was waived, so he knows the system Nagy's implementing with the Bears.
"He's doing a good job because he knows this offense," Nagy said of Kush. "He's gotten bigger and stronger. Mentally, the game has slowed down for him, so (he knows) any type of protection calls and the run game. And Kush is never going to shy away from competition. That's the best part I like about Kush is he's like, 'Bring it on, right?' And competition is great. Once we get going in preseason, there are going to be some competition among the whole team with each other, and that's how we get better."
Daniels may already be gaining on Kush, but the veteran isn't wasting much time looking over his shoulder.
"My mindset is, 'I'm going to control what I can control,'" Kush said. "That means focusing on getting better at the little things, playing hard and trying to stay nasty out here on the football field and worry about myself."
Kwiatkoski is taking a similar approach. The longer Smith is away and Trevathan is limited to spectating, the more opportunities he has to prove himself and improve his game.
"I look at it as focusing on getting better myself and as a defense," Kwiatkoski said. "It's definitely an opportunity to get some reps."
But, is it his job to lose?
"That's not on my mind," he said. "My mindset is coming out here and doing what I can to be better, get in the film room and watching it, so see what I can do to make myself better."
As Nagy indicated, the competition should be interesting.
• Bob LeGere is a senior writer at Pro Football Weekly. Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere or @PFWeekly.