By Chris Emma—

CHICAGO (CBS) – Early on in his rookie season in 2016, Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski learned the importance of mental reps.

Kwiatkoski entered last season as the next man up behind veterans Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman but prepared as if he was going to be the starter – or, at the least, play a key role in that Sunday’s game. He would study intently in the film room and watch opposing offenses as if he would be the man asked to make the play.

That work paid off for Kwiatkoski, who started seven games and played a key role in 14 contests while Trevathan and Freeman missed time. So when Kwiatkoski was sidelined with a pectoral injury this season, he stayed sharp by preparing as if he would play.

“The biggest thing is not losing that rhythm,” Kwiatkoski said Friday at Halas Hall. “Even though I wasn’t on the field, preparing for games like I was, staying in the film room, staying in shape, doing what you can do. It starts there and then when you get into practice, don’t skip a beat, do what you did before.

“I didn’t change what I did before. I was still in all the meetings, still watching film with the other linebackers, things like that. So that part didn’t really change.”

Kwiatkoski suffered his pectoral injury in the Bears’ second game in September as he reached an arm out and it got caught. Initial fears were that he had suffered a complete tear to the pectoral, as Freeman had one week earlier. But after several days, the pain significantly reduced, Kwiatkoski said. From there, the Bears ruled out a serious injury.

Kwiatkoski feared the worst initially, as did his team. He would’ve happily accepted the three-week absence given that it could’ve been a long, grueling road back.

Now he’s nearing a return. The Bears have listed Kwiatkoski as questionable against the Panthers on Sunday, though he practiced in full on Friday for the first time since suffering the injury. The hope is that he can rejoin Trevathan at inside linebacker and help a defense that has played well in recent weeks.

Kwiatkoski was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, with the Bears hoping they could develop his talents into something more. General manager Ryan Pace did well in scouting the work ethic behind the player. Coach John Fox has taken notice to how Kwiatkoski prepares.

Once Kwiatkoski returns to the field, the Bears are hoping he can continue a promising development track.

“This game’s fast and it takes experience and it takes time,” Fox said. “He’s a smart guy who has been willing to work. And I’ve seen that improvement from last year to this year.”

Injury report: Bears receiver Markus Wheaton (groin) has been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Linebacker John Timu (ankle/knee) and cornerback Sherrick McManis (hamstring) are doubtful. Running back Benny Cunningham (hamstring) and center Hroniss Grasu (hand) are questionable. 

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

Watch & Listen LIVE