Packers' Interest in Nick Kwiatkoski Must Concern Bears
It was the week of the December 15 last gasp by the Bears to stay alive in the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was talking about his greatest fears from a Chicago defense depleted by injury.
"Forty-four, I've always thought is a really solid player," Rodgers said. "I don't want to butcher his last name, but he rocked me a couple years ago. I know where 44's at most of the time when he's in the game."
Of course, 44 is Bears backup inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and he becomes an unrestricted free agent unless the Bears work out a way to retain him. Doing it seems a dicey proposition.
It seems the Packers want to do more than compliment Kwiatkoski. According to numerous reports from Packer camp at the combine in Indianapolis, they want to sign him as a UFA acquisition.
The Bears haven't tipped their hand about how far they would go to retain Kwiatkoski. The situation with starter Danny Trevathan also being a free agent makes this a difficult situation, because it's generally understood both players aren't coming back to Chicago to share a position.
"Inside linebacker for us is a position of strength," general manager Ryan Pace said at the combine this week. "I do feel like last year, when we talk about our defense, that we got hit with injuries with both those players. I think that hurt us—with Akiem (Hicks) going down in the middle, too. But this is a fully recoverable thing for Roquan. When he was healthy last year and playing right, you saw the player that we drafted and why we took him so high. Our outlook on him is very optimistic."
As for talks with Kwiatkoski or Trevathan
Any of those negotiations, with all those guys, we'll keep them in-house," Pace said. "I hope you guys can respect this time of year. It's a difficult time to talk about a lot of things."
As for Kwiatkoski, Pace said, "He took full advantage for his opportunities when he got them. You tip your hat to him. We talk about drafting and developing players. With him being a fourth-round pick, we're proud of where he got to."
Why the Packers would be pursuing Kwiatkoski when their own inside linebacker, Blake Martinez, is also a free agent seems rather mysterious. According to Pro Footbal Focus grades, Martinez and Kwiatkoski are fairly similar players. Both have had a good season or two and a few less impressive.
Martinez has been a starter since his rookie year of 2016 and had PFF grades of 59.6, 66.6, 74.0 and then 58.7 last year. Kwiatkoski's grades were 59.1, 80.5, 56.1 and last year 72.6.
Kwiatkowksi hasn't played extensively for the Bears, even if he had "rocked" Rodgers. He was chosen 18 picks ahead of Martinez in the 2016 draft.
It's possible the Packers believe they can get Kwiatkoski for much less than they could retain Martinez, but early predictions in Chicago have Kwiatkoski pricing himself beyond the Bears' reach because teams perceive him to be a player on the rise. However, the Bears had only $13 million under the cap when this talk started. They currently have over $26 million with the capability of creating more.
Kwiatkoski has started just 22 games in his four seasons. Last year he had an outstanding game against the Vikings when he had to play due to a missed game by Roquan Smith for "personal reasons," then took over the other linebacker spot when Trevathan suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
Kwiatkowksi's ability to cover passes in relation to other Bears linebackers always was the question when Vic Fangio was the defensive coordinator in Chicago. Last year, though, Kwiatkoski made his first career interception and had an outstanding passer rating against of 66.0 when targeted. He gave up only 4.0 yards against the pass when targeted. It must also be noted he played only 48% of the defensive snaps.
The Bears have been very active in looking at inside linebackers, apparently to replace one of these two unrestricted free agents or even both.
It's been widely reported they spoke to Akeem Davis-Gaither of Appalachian State, Michael Pinckney of Miami and Logan Wilson of Wyoming at all-star games.
Would they be interested in Martinez if Kwiatkoski went to the Packers? It would seem doubtful, since Martinez's perceived weakness is the same as Kwiatkoski's
The Bears more likely are looking to improve at the position with greater speed if they delve into the draft. They already have one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL in Smith, and adding another one could make for a devastating combination.