Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith is about to break out. Smith, the first Georgia Bulldog to win the Butkus Award (as a junior, no less) and the No. 8 selection of the 2018 draft, has since established himself as a ‘pro’s pro.’ He is calm, cerebral, and wickedly talented, the type of player who diagnoses offenses as well as he stops them.
According to head coach Matt Nagy, Smith is approaching Khalil Mack’s type of on-field presence: a wrecking ball who can outthink everyone, even the head coach, during first-team offense practice. Just last week, Smith derailed goal-line work by intercepting rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ shovel pass and then had a clear path to run it back the entire way for a touchdown.
“The anticipation that he uses—you’ve seen him the last couple of years on some of these screens when he’s just flying through there, blowing the running back up before he gets the ball,” Nagy said. “He’s one step ahead.”
What comes next for Smith? A new contract, supposedly, to usher in a new era as the centerpiece of the Bears defense. It’s the age-old song and dance for rising fourth year players in the league who have proven themselves: when is the right time to extend? Leverage goes both ways and can be a fickle mistress if your timing is poor. If the Bears wait and see how Smith performs this year, which is well within their rights, they could end up paying him Darius Leonard or Fred Warner type of money (five years, just under $100 million, respectively), assuming Smith has a monster year. After all, these new contract reset the market each time one is inked. But an average year — or worse, an injury year — for Smith could save the Bears millions of dollars on the next contract.
With all the posturing and moving parts, it’s no wonder players in this situation tend to give the company line when asked about it: “My time will come,” Smith said at the start of training camp. “I’m not too worried about that. I still have a lot to prove.”
Historical precedent would suggest that the Bears will extend Smith soon, before the season starts. No doubt major-market journalists like those covering Chicago sports will self-destruct on the spot if a deal isn’t made in the next few weeks. At this point though, Smith’s agent is probably trying to negotiate more incentives for his client to get the headline number up. Or maybe the Bears front office is trying to do a salary cap dance.
Whatever the case may be, Roquan Smith is a gamer, and he will be the leader on any defense for the foreseeable future.
“This guy is obsessed [with football],” Nagy added. “He’s obsessed with being the best linebacker in the NFL, and I love that.”