Hub Arkush: Who is the most overlooked player in Bears camp?

July 29, 2018

BOURBONNAIS — Almost everyone agrees the biggest question surrounding the Chicago Bears’ defense this year is whether they’ll find enough pass rush and, even more specifically, who will be the starting outside linebacker opposite Leonard Floyd.

There are plenty of candidates in training camp right now: Sam Acho, the incumbent; Isaiah Irving, who flashed a couple of times late last season; this year’s sixth-round draft choice, Kylie Fitts, who’s drawing positive reviews so far; fifth-year journeyman Kasim Edebali, working on his fifth NFL team; and former 49er and Vic Fangio disciple Aaron Lynch, the presumptive first choice for the spot, if he can ever heal a nagging hamstring.

Stay tuned.

The bigger question for now has been whether the team even has enough warm bodies to play inside linebacker.

Unless you’ve been on the moon, you’ve probably heard that both starters currently are MIA.

First-round pick Roquan Smith is still a contract holdout (as of this writing), and Danny Trevathan is being brought back very slowly from last year’s season-ending knee injury. Even fourth-round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe has spent most of his time on the trainer’s table with a bum shoulder.

Right now, the only inside backer the Bears can count on is 2016 fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkoski — and the West Virginia alum is having himself quite a camp.

Head coach Matt Nagy said Saturday, “Kwit right now is playing really well. You saw the pick today that he had, he’s thumping people in the run game. I love his mentality.”

In fact, Kwiatkoski has been the one consistent presence in the middle of the Bears defense.

He is not a man of many words. Asked how he thinks things are going, he told us, “I feel like I’m having a pretty good camp. I mean, it’s hard to say. When I go back and watch the film, there’s definitely mistakes there, things I need to work on, but overall, [I] feel like I’m getting better.”

With each passing day there is growing concern over the time Smith is missing to seize a starting job — which everyone assumes will be handed to him — and there is no saying when Trevathan will be back.

But Kwiatkoski insists he’s refusing to get caught looking ahead to a possible starting job.

“Just from my past couple years, you never really know what’s going to happen so you can’t really look ahead. [I’m] just coming out here every day, getting better as an individual, as a defense and just building each day.”

Should his opportunity come, Kwiatkoski believes that if he tries to lead, his teammates will follow.

“In my mind, yes. We’ve been kind of doing it as a whole LB group, just kind of let things flow out there and it’s been working so far in camp.”

Hard as it is to imagine Smith not being handed the reins to the defense, and he clearly will be checking in soon, Nagy issued his own not-so-fast after Saturday’s practice.

I asked the coach how hard it was to work with Kwiatkoski knowing he’d be dropping him to the third spot when Smith and Trevathan are ready, and Nagy said, “I don’t necessarily know if he’s No. 3.

“You say that, but I told you this at the beginning: You’ve got to earn your spot. He didn’t blink when we drafted Roquan. He stepped right on in there and put the horse blinders on and went after it. That’s where we’re at right now.

“I’m excited for him, I’m proud of him and I just want to keep that thing going.”

Was the boss encouraging Kwiatkoski to work harder? Was Nagy sending a message to Smith he knew the rest of the media and I would deliver to get his butt to camp? Was it perhaps both?

We don’t really know Nagy well enough yet to know.

But we do know this: Nick Kwiatkoski has been the Bears’ best linebacker in camp so far, and his plan is to stay on the field as long as he can.

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