For the second straight year, the Bears will look to Nick Kwiatkoski to help fill the void following the loss of a key veteran. But this time the young linebacker appears to be better equipped to succeed.
Kwiatkoski is expected to see expanded playing time in place of Jerrell Freeman, who is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle he suffered in last Sunday's season opener against the Falcons.
Kwiatkoski was in a similar position last year as a rookie after Danny Trevathan injured his thumb in a Week 2 loss to the Eagles. But after being sidelined for four weeks after hurting his hamstring on the third day of training camp, Kwiatkoski struggled in his first NFL start in a Week 3 loss in Dallas.
Bears ILB Nick Kwiakoski.
"Not having a preseason hurt, especially coming into 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 and doing the things I did last year, I feel so much better and much more comfortable.
"It's a lot different this year. Just being able to do camp this year and getting the experience I did in the preseason, I definitely feel way more ahead of the game than I did last year."
The experience that Kwiatkoski gained as a rookie came mostly late in the season; he recorded 43 tackles, one sack and five tackles-for-loss while starting the final six games in place of the injured Trevathan and suspended Freeman.
"I think he grew," said coach John Fox. "His very first game was against the Dallas Cowboys; he obviously got better from that. I feel a lot better about Nick right now than I probably did in that Dallas game last season."
Man in the middle: Although he never coached Brian Urlacher, Fox is friends with the former Bears star middle linebacker and was thrilled to hear that Urlacher has been selected as one of the nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018.
"He was a dominant guy as a 'Mike' linebacker," Fox said. "What was kind of unusual about Brian was he kind of played like a [safety] at New Mexico. To come in here being a DB for most of your career in college and then transforming into a middle linebacker and the best in the business that I remember during that time—hope I'm not offending anybody else.
"He was good in both the run and pass. He was sideline-to-sideline. You couldn't get away from him because he's right in the middle of the defense. He was part of a lot of really good defenses here in that time and I thought he was a dominant player."
Asked if he thinks that Urlacher is a Hall of Famer, Fox said: "In my opinion, yes. But I don't think my phone is ringing off the hook right now asking for my vote. I wish him nothing but the best though."
Support system: Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has been offering his support to Kevin White ever since the receiver suffered a fractured scapula in last Sunday's opener—White's third serious injury in as many NFL seasons.
"Since the game, I've probably talked to Kevin every day," Loggains said. "That's the part as a coach and for his teammates, you really hurt for the kid because he's worked his tail off. He worked so hard and has gone through so much at this point in his career.
"You know how important it is; just being heartbroken because he feels like being hurt you let down the team, you're not out there with your teammates in the most critical situation when they need you. He's going to have great support from us, from his teammates. We're going to miss him obviously because he's a good player and he's a great kid.
"It's tough on everyone when they go through this. We went through this with Cam [Meredith] as well, the effort that he put in to get ready to play. Kevin's going to be supporting his guys and he's still going to be part of the team."
More on Freeman: Fox confirmed that Freeman was placed on injured reserve due to the torn pectoral muscle he suffered against the Falcons and not the concussion he also sustained in the game.
The Bears coach did not say whether Freeman was a candidate to be reinstated from injured reserve later in the season. NFL teams are permitted to activate two players after they spend at least eight weeks on IR.
"With the current rules, really, we don't have to declare one way or another, so we'll just play that by ear," Fox said. "But it will require surgery."