When Nick Kwiatkoski made his first NFL start at inside linebacker in Week 3 against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium last season, he didn’t last long. He only played 18 of 68 defensive snaps.
“It was something I wasn’t proud of. But you’ve got to start somewhere,” Kwiatkoski said.
The fourth-round draft pick from West Virginia improved from there. He ended up starting the final six games of the season in place of Jerrell Freeman (suspension) and Danny Trevathan (knee injury) and was much better than his debut. He had five tackles-for-loss in the final five games.
Now Kwiatkoski will get a chance to show just how much he’s improved since then when he starts for injured veteran Jerrell Freeman against the Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Freeman was put on injured reserve Tuesday and will have surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle he suffered in the Bears’ 23-17 loss to the Falcons on Sunday in the season opener at Soldier Field. He could return after eight weeks, but likely is out for the season.
This will be the biggest test of the Bears’ roster depth after injuries greased the skids for a 3-13 season in 2016. The Bears already have three starters on IR this season — Freeman and wide receivers Kevin White (broken shoulder blade) and Cam Meredith (torn ACL). But while their receiving depth is suspect, the Bears are expecting Kwiatkoski to fill Freeman’s role much better than he did last year.
“I think he grew,” coach John Fox said of Kwiatkoski. “You never want to lose two starters in the opener — both Kevin and Jerrell. But part of the reason why you talk about and build depth is for these reasons. I feel a lot better about Nick right now than I probably did in that Dallas game last season.”
Kwiatkoski not only has more game experience than he had when he started for Freeman and Trevathan last year, he also comes into this season in better shape. He suffered a hamstring injury on the third of training camp last year — the first day in pads — and missed most of training camp and the preseason.
This season, Kwiatkoski suffered a concussion in the preseason opener against the Broncos and missed a week of practice and the next game, but went otherwise unscathed and came into the regular season strong.
That in itself is a big difference, he said.
“Not having a preseason [in 2016] hurt, especially coming my rookie year,” Kwiatkoski said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. It all happened fast last year. But the growth I’ve had since then — getting some experience, doing some things I did last year — I feel so much better and much more comfortable.”
Kwiatkoski started in place of Trevathan, who was recovering from knee surgery) in the preseason opener. He started in both linebacker positions last season. So he is comfortable in both. He also is comfortable with play-calling responsibilities if it comes to that.
“As a linebacker corps we try to learn both,” Kwiatkoski said. “It helps to know what the other guy’s doing. And also for times like this, where you never know where you could be.”
Kwiatkoski played seven snaps on defense in the season opener but was mostly used on special teams. He had a big hit on punt returner Andre Roberts.
He’ll have a chance to make a much bigger impact Sunday.
“You have to be ready for things like this,” Kwiatkoski said. “It happened last year, the injuries. I definitely feel like I’ve gained some experience. I feel I’m ready.”
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