With rookie minicamp being a week removed, Bears first-round pick and new starting inside linebacker Roquan Smith garnered most of the media attention. But the forgotten man from their stellar draft class continues to be Joel Iyiegbuniwe. He and Smith roomed together at rookie minicamp and already have started to form a bond.
“We’re already talking and studying together,” Iyiegbuniwe said. “I’m just picking his brain and whatnot and learning as much as I can.”
The two talented inside linebackers will benefit greatly from studying together, which will hopefully translate to on-field success down the road. While Smith will start right away, Iyiegbuniwe has the skills and potential to round out a dynamic duo at the position in the not too distant future.
So what does the Bears “other” linebacker bring to the table?
Hurt in his senior year in high school, Iyiegbuniwe was lightly recruited and decided to commit to Western Kentucky who was the only FBS-level school to offer him a scholarship. He earned playing time as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, before a knee injury ended his season.
After a fully healthy redshirt freshman year where he served as a reserve linebacker and special teams ace, he broke out as a sophomore when he started all 14 games and racked up 64 tackles, 10 for loss, 3.5-sacks and three pass break-ups. Iyiegbuniwe mostly rushed the passer as an outside linebacker, but also played off ball linebacker at times. This breakout season earned him second-team All-Conference USA honors.
Following this, Iyiegbuniwe was voted a team captain before his junior year in which the Hilltoppers moved to a 4-2-5 scheme, prompting a move inside where he took another big step in production. He had his best season totaling 117 tackles, 11.5 for loss, and two sacks on his way to first-team All-Conference USA.
Where He Wins
Iyiegbuniwe’s athleticism is what got him drafted so high and it is the reason he has more upside than you might think. He was a combine “top performer” in every athletic event he competed in.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6-seconds to go along with good explosion numbers with a 35-inch vertical leap and 117-inch broad jump. Most impressively, he displayed great agility with 7.06-seconds in the three-cone and 4.28-seconds in the 20-yard shuttle.
But most importantly … all of these numbers showed up on tape. Iyiegbuniwe is not just a workout warrior, his speed and short area quickness showed especially in the next two areas discussed below.
While Iyiegbuniwe has experience at both outside and inside linebacker, the Bears have already announced he will be playing inside in the NFL. This is the right decision as he does not have the required size or length to succeed full time off the edge.
But inside, he shows the sideline-to-sideline speed and athleticism to succeed. He flows laterally very well and is able to close quickly on outside runs. And when he gets to the ball carrier, he packs a punch with his relatively small frame.
In addition to having great range, Iyiegbuniwe has the ability (despite his lack of size) to be a downhill thumper in the run game. He uses his short area quickness to slip blocks in order to get in the backfield and around larger defenders.
In the plays below, he shows off his versatility by lining up on the outside and the inside. But the result is the same. He is able to get into the backfield quickly and stop the play for a loss.
According to Pro Football Focus, Iyiegbuniwe finished the season ranked 35th among draft-eligible linebackers with a 10.1 run-stop percentage. This led him to a high-quality run-defense grade of 85.5.
It’s easy to see why Iyiegbuniwe can be an asset right away defending the run.
As mentioned above, Iyiegbuniwe has experience rushing the passer off the edge but is too small to succeed there full-time in the NFL. But in sub packages, he could be used as an extra blitzer either from a slot corner or inside linebacker position.
He is especially adept at blitzing from the inside where he utilizes great anticipation to perfectly time his blitzes to avoid blocks. He doesn’t get the sack on the first play, but he closed quickly and forced the quarterback to scramble.
Most players drafted on Day 3 that want to contribute will have to start off on special teams.
This is an area where Iyiegbuniwe can excel.
Iyiegbuniwe was a four-down defender for Western Kentucky making 266 snaps on special teams over the last two seasons alone.
His athleticism and physicality are perfectly suited for punt and kick coverage. He could even be used as a gunner at times on punt units.
Chicago is a city that understands and respects the value of special teams. Iyiegbuniwe can become a fan favorite with his special team play right away.
Where He Can Improve
You would think given his size that Iyiegbuniwe would excel in coverage, but this is unfortunately not the case. In his two years as a starter, he only had 4 pass deflections to go along with zero interceptions.
If we dive a little deeper, the numbers get less impressive. According to PFF, he was targeted every nine pass coverage attempts which was 90th among draft-eligible linebackers. And when he was targeted, it was usually for good reason as he gave up .93 yards per coverage snap in 2017, ranking 105th for linebackers.
The stats aren’t promising, but Iyiegbuniwe only played off-ball linebacker for one year in his career. What he did show was he is comfortability in his backpedal and he has the skill set to quickly flip his hips and run with tight ends and running backs. He needs to become better disciplined in zone coverage, but with good NFL coaching, he has the athleticism to become serviceable at the very least in coverage.
Right now, Iyiegbuniwe is a block slipper, not a block shedder. He is able to use his athleticism to avoid blockers, but if offensive linemen get their hands on him, he can struggle at times to disengage. He works best as a weakside linebacker when he can flow to the ball and let his athleticism shine.
However, he did flash some block shedding ability when facing tight ends or fullbacks. When he does shed blocks he uses his 33-inch arms to not let blockers get close to him. These flashes lead me to believe that with proper coaching, he can still get better in this area. He just needs to become more consistent.
Which leads us to his biggest weakness …
The biggest thing keeping Iyiegbuniwe from taking the next step is inconsistency. He will make a couple great plays and then disappear for long stretches. He even noticeably avoided contact allowing ball carriers to get extra yards.
At times he plays so lackadaisically that it allowed for big plays or even a couple yards to be the difference between a fourth and a first down.
When he wants to compete, he can be relentless and a true difference maker. This is something I am sure the coaches have already talked to him about.
This could have been a case of fatigue as Iyiegbuniwe played all four downs in college. He rarely came off the field and I could see how it could be difficult to play 100 percent on every play of the game. In a lesser role, he should be able to let his athleticism and physicality shine without needing to take plays off.
With Danny Trevathan occupying one linebacker spot and first-round pick Smith occupying the other, Iyiegbuniwe won’t see much playing time as a rookie barring injury. However, Trevathan and backup Nick Kwiatkoski have both dealt with multiple injuries while in Chicago, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Iyiegbuniwe thrust into starting duty.
It would also not be a surprise to see him used in certain packages as a box safety or nickel corner when they want a little more size on the field. Trevathan, Smith, and Iyiegbuniwe playing at the same time would allow them to cover and defend multiple tight end sets better than a nickel corner would. Last year the Bears had a blitz package with Sherrick McManis. Iyiegbuniwe can fill that role and provide a little more production.
But if everything goes according to plan, Iyiegbuniwe should be able to contribute as a special teams ace right away. He played there in college and his speed and physicality will serve him well in this role.
An interesting discussion begins after this season. Trevathan will be on the last year of his deal and can be cut with only $1.25 million in dead cap – a savings of $6.4 million. As mentioned above he has dealt with injuries over the last few seasons and the Bears might elect to go with a player they are excited about in Iyiegbuniwe.
There is no arguing there were better players at more pressing needs available when he was picked. But the draft is well behind us and we need to focus on the players we have, not the players we could have had.
Iyiegbuniwe can be a great player in his own right.
He is great in the run game and when blitzing his athleticism will allow him to become much better in coverage with time. The biggest question I have for him is does he want to be great? Because the tools are all there, but he needs to use them every play, not just when he wants to.
Working with Smith should push Iyiegbuniwe in ways he was never before. And his development will be accelerated by picking the brain of the instinctive linebacker.
When Vic Fangio was in San Francisco, he had Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman roaming the middle of his vaunted defense. Well, the Bears got their Willis replacement with Smith in the first round. And, if all goes according to plan, they may have gotten their Bowman in the same draft with Iyiegbuniwe.