The inability of Joel Iyiegbuniwe to develop into a third inside linebacker and the huge step required of Josh Woods left the Bears without inside linebacker depth last season.
Woods was an undrafted free agent converted from college defensive back and against Green Bay he seemed a bit out of his league after replacing injured Roquan Smith.
It was a careless mistake by GM Ryan Pace to leave the team without proven inside linebacker depth just a year after they lost both Danny Trevathan and Smith for extended portions of the season.
Yet here were the Bears in an NFC wild card playoff game using Manti Te'o as a starter alongside Trevathan because of Smith's elbow injury. Te'o had been with the team since mid-October with the practice squad and didn't play in the regular season.
They had trained Nick Kwiatkoski well for four years in the defense but lost him in free agency, and backup Kevin Pierre-Louis also excelled in backup duty before he also left.
Pace can't allow this to happen again. They need to either turn another draft pick, into a strong backup capable of eventually replacing Trevathan, who will turn 31 later this offseason. It might even be time to think about the future beyond Trevathan's career by bringing in a higher draft pick at inside linebacker.
Of course, on draft day they do draw up a draft board and tend to stick with higher-rated players available, but as Pace pointed out, "You know it's going to be best player available, but we focus on needs and lean towards needs..."
The need is obvious.
Free agency could also provide a stop-gap measure until drafted players develop beyond the levels of Woods and Iyiegbuniwe.
It's a solid year for linebackers in the draft, both inside and on the edge, according to FanNation's NFL Draft Bible.
It's unlikely the Bears would spend a first-round pick or second-round pick on an inside linebacker with more pressing needs on offense or slot cornerback. Even a third-round pick might be too high.
They do draw up a draft board, but as Pace pointed out, "You know it's going to be best player available, but we focus on needs and lean towards needs..."
This likely would push Penn State's Micah Parsons, Missouri's Nick Bolton and Tulsa's Zaven Collins out of the reach of the Bears. All three are projected near the top of the inside linebacker class by NFL Draft Bible's.
Here are some of the possible selections after the first round who would be available.
Baron Browning, Ohio State
A solid fit for inside linebacker in the 3-4 or even a weak side 4-3 linebacker, he is 6-2, 248 and has been at his best flowing to ball carriers when linemen are occupying blockers. So he'd be a good fit in the two-gap Bears system, though not necessarily a strong coverage linebacker.
Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
A 6-3, 230-pound play-making 4-3 style outside linebacker. He displays good speed and made 22 1/2 tackles for loss with 12 1/2 sacks and two interceptions in college. A likely third-to-fifth round talent.
Palaie Gaoteote IV, USC
A big-hitting junior who has excellent size at 6-2, 250 an and speed and plays as well in coverage as he does against the run. Scouts have noted a need to take better tackling angles and break down better because he always seems to be arriving full speed, which isn't necessarily bad but can cause problems against certain kinds of runs and runners. Played Mike in the 4-3 at USC and some scouts feel he can be a Will in a 4-3.
Nate Landman, Colorado
Probably more of a two-down inside linebacker at 6-3, 230, though his speed isn't necessarily poor enough to entirely prevent him from being on the field in passing situations. Instinctive and sharp with the defensive scheme, he also is viewed as a strong possible special teams addition.
Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
A classic style downhill, charging inside linebacker at 6-foot-3, 241 pounds, Fisher probably could fill a backup well easily but long term would need to be in the right system to stand out because he hasn't been at his strongest in pass coverage. In a Bears style of defense he could fill a backup spot like Trevathan has but couldn't be the player in space Smith is.
Tuf Borland, Ohio State
His first name describes his style and at 6-1, 228 he could stand to add some muscle for the inside. Plays with great intelligence and solid fundamentally. An ideal fit in the Bears defense because he is projected as a linebacker who can read and quickly arrive if blockers are being occupied. He's projected by many scouts as a strong special teams addition and backup type who could flourish as a starter if he's kept away from a one-gap style.
DaShaun White, Oklahoma
An undersized 6-foot, 228-pounder who has to become more fundamentally sound with his tackling, according to several scouting reports. He has the speed to arrive with force but too often bounces off or fails to finish.
Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin
A big hitter with ability to finish tackles at 6-1, 232. Also known for being a smart field general, he's not fundamentally sound in his drops for pass coverage but manages to get the job done with desire and also an ability to play the ball. He had four interceptions in the past two seasons and finished his college career with four passes defensed. The Bears couldn't go wrong here. He's already a Bear. He's from Lake Zurich, Ill. just down the road from Lake Forest and Halas Hall. The nickname for Lake Zurich High? The Bears.
K.J. Britt, Auburn
A Trevathan type who is shorter than ideal at 6-foot and 236, but he has been classified as a "thumper" or big hitter in several scouting reports.Pro Football Focus labeled him the best run-stuffing linebacker in the country. All-SEC in 2019 but had a thumb injury in 2020 that limited his playing time and required surgery. He still made 118 college tackles and 13 for loss. Downhill style and not necessarily a three-down linebacker.
Erroll Thompson, Mississippi State
Experienced but a bit inconsistent in terms of playing the scheme the way it's intended. Proved himself with 312 tackles in four-year career including 23 tackles for loss. There's no denying his physical abilities at 6-1, 250. He can level a running back but needs to make big improvement in pass coverage.