Updated May 30, 2020 - 4:32 pm
When opportunity knocked last year for Nick Kwiatkoski, the Chicago Bears’ four-year reserve linebacker, he answered.
With free agency looming, he was put in position to show the rest of the NFL what the Bears privately knew about the high-motor, highly athletic 26-year-old: It wasn’t a lack of ability that prevented Kwiatkoski from being a full-time starter, it was that the Bears had some of the best players in football at his position.
In Kwiatkoski, the Bears’ depth chart was hiding a starting caliber linebacker. And not just a situational one, but the highly coveted three-down kind who can play the run and the pass.
All of which he showed in an eight-game stint at the end of the 2019 season. He had 50 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss and four pass breakups to firmly establish himself as a valuable free agent target. The Raiders, in need of an infusion of young talent at linebacker, reeled in the former West Virginia standout on the first day of free agency with a three-year, $21-million contract.
Even in the final days leading into free agency, Kwiatkoski wasn’t sure how things would play out. He did his part by seizing his chance to start. Whether anyone was paying attention was another matter and frankly out of his control.
As it turns out, though, the interest in him was real and steady. A handful of teams immediately reached out. The Raiders among them.
” I just thought it was a great opportunity,” Kwiatkoski said this week of the Raiders’ offer while taking a break from virtual OTA’s.
He comes to the Raiders along with fellow free agent linebacker Cory Littleton, and their presence completely turns a nagging weakness into a potential strength. Kwiatkoski will play middle linebacker and call the Raiders’ defense. Littleton will play weakside linebacker.
“I can’t wait to get started,” Kwiatkoski said.
He has some fortuitous timing to thank.
That his opportunity to start arrived at the expense of teammate and good friend, Danny Trevathan, didn’t please Kwiatkoski one bit. But injuries are an unfortunate part of life in the NFL, and so too is the next-man up mentality. In Kwiatkoski’s case, stepping up just so happened to coincide with the pivotal offseason he was facing.
“He knew it was a big year for him. It was a contract year for him, and he put a lot into it,” said North Carolina State defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who was the West Virginia defensive coordinator when Kwiatkoski played there. “And it was really satisfying to see him have the success he did.”
Rather than cloud his head with the personal what-ifs and ramifications of the opportunity he’d been given, he simply focused on the task at hand. That was true before the injury to Trevathan and it remained the case afterward. In that sense, Kwiatkoski didn’t have to change his routine or mindset or work ethic one bit.
“I learned early on in my career that you have to stay ready, you never know what might happen no matter what your role is,” said Kwiatkoski, had made 14 starts over the first three years of his career.
There is sometimes a double-edged sword effect when rotational players get a chance to play extensively. On one hand they are getting a chance to start, but the more they play, the more their flaws and weaknesses sometimes become known. In Kwiatkoski’s case, the opposite was true. He not only solidified his strength as a run defender but also revealed an ability to defend the pass.
It helped that he had done both, albeit in smaller spurts, throughout his career.
“So I was very comfortable … and the comfort level came from really just working (with a deep Bears linebacker group) for a couple of years and just having good communication and things of that nature,” Kwiatkoski said. “But I definitely felt comfortable as a three-down linebacker.”
Kwiatkoski played safety in high school while growing up in Pittsburgh, so the concept of coupling run support with pass coverage certainly wasn’t new. At West Virginia he had blitz, run and pass coverage responsibilities. With the NFL putting more and more pressure on linebackers to be multi-skilled, his versatility served him well.
“The NFL is definitely transitioning where linebackers are comfortable playing more like safeties,” Kwiatkoski said. “So there’s definitely things that I’ve done, things I’ve worked on, that carry over.”
Only this time he’ll b an undisputed, full-time starter. It’s an opportunity the former fourth-round pick has worked for his whole career. And one his former college defensive coordinator believes he will seize.
“(The Raiders) are getting a tough, hardnosed, gritty player,” Gibson said. “He’s not only going to fit right in, they’re going to love him. He’s a throwback. He can play the game right now, as physical as it is, without a face mask, So I think they’re going to love what they see.”
Contact Vincent Bonsignore at email@example.com.
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