What should a top-10 pick at linebacker be?
That’s an important question when it comes to Roquan Smith, middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears and eighth overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. Smith is a good ballplayer, and in the film cut-up below, you’ll see some things that could make him one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
But he isn’t there yet. And when the Bears invested the eighth overall pick in Smith, they did so needing him to become that player. The last linebacker drafted in the top 10 before Smith was six years previous, in the 2012 NFL Draft, when Boston College’s Luke Kuechly was drafted by the Carolina Panthers at ninth overall. This, after a long string of disappointing top-10 picks for linebackers: Rolando McClain in 2010, Aaron Curry in 2009, and Keith Rivers in 2008.
Most of the best linebackers of the 2010s were coming from later draft picks. After Kuechly, the leading tacklers of the past decade were Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David, K.J. Wright, Demario Davis, NaVorro Bowman, and Sean Lee—none of them selected in the first round. Early drafted players like Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree hung around on various rosters and accumulated stats, but were largely considered disappointments on their draft capital.
The Bears drafted Smith early because they thought he had a chance to be Kuechly. That’s the only reason you’d take a linebacker that early; that’s the sort of production that you’d need to justify the pick. It is an impossible measuring stick to be lined up against, and it’s unfair to Smith to put the first two years of his career up against Kuechly, but doing so helps us understand the benchmarks for value that Smith is trying to reach.
Across their first two seasons, Kuechly played four more games (32 to 28) and put up 40 more tackles (196 to 155). He also has Smith beat in interceptions generated (6 to 2) and in tackles for loss (22 to 13) by pretty significant margins, while Smith has the edge in sacks (7 to 3).
It isn’t all that bad—again, comparing anyone to Kuechly, even if it’s just their first two seasons, is unfair. Kuechly made the First-Team All-Pro squad in his second season and then made it four of the next five seasons as well. He was as good as linebacking got in the 2010s, and Smith doesn’t need to be the undisputed best linebacker in the league to return value as an eighth overall pick.
But Smith has yet to sniff a Pro Bowl, and while the Bears’ locker room and coaching staff seem to love him, the fan base is still waiting for more.
Smith has more to offer. There are plays where Smith interprets offensive flow and diagnoses misdirection or play-action faster than most veteran linebackers in the NFL. That puts him in excellent situations to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage or protects him from getting confounded in coverage.
Of course, there’s a lot that’s left after keying on a play. In that final rep against the Los Angeles Rams, we see Smith immediately figure out that the Rams are looking to get play-action crossers behind his level of the defense, and as such, he barely reacts to the run action, quickly turning to locate wide receiver Josh Reynolds on the cross opposite of the Rams’ zone flow. Everything up to this point is awesome.
But then things go sour. Smith puts his hips into the oncoming Reynolds and stops his feet, allowing the much faster wide receiver to easily cross his face and break into the open field. Smith has to flip his hips and play man from the trail, which is never where you want your linebacker to be against a wide receiver. Because of pressure, quarterback Jared Goff delivers an errant pass that Smith intercepts—under many other circumstances, this is a completion.
Smith has not done well in man coverage for the Bears. To his defense, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is comfortable flexing him over the No. 2 receiver in too many circumstances, which puts Smith against such players as Emmanuel Sanders and Keenan Allen. This is an unreasonable ask for a linebacker and the Bears need to do a better job acquiring a true slot defender and getting him on the field. But when Smith is tasked with defense against tight ends, which is a reasonable ask for a linebacker of his athletic caliber and intelligence, he struggles.
This is a bit surprising relative to his college film. When the Bears made the pick, they were expecting one of the smartest linebackers in college football to deliver them TFLs and quick-trigger reads, and they got that. But they were also expecting a linebacker with a ton of experience and comfort playing in man coverage over backs and tight ends.
An early-drafted linebacker must be a three-down player who can impact the passing game. To this point, Smith’s speed and vision is quality against check-down routes from running backs, but anything more than that is too tall of an ask for the young ‘backer. It’s worth asking if Smith has been tasked with putting on too much weight for his frame (he played in the 230s at Georgia), and if that added mass has impacted his change of direction and explosiveness.
How much does this matter? It would matter less if the Bears had a good slot defender, so that Smith wasn’t their solution against the top tight ends of the world. But if Smith doesn’t improve his man cover ability against tight ends, then he is effectually a two-down player, who can be dropped into short zones on third down with average impact, or spied or blitzed with some success (his high sack numbers indicate the Bears are trying to get him out of coverage responsibilities), but doesn’t bring anything special to the table.
Smith’s instincts are special; I believe that strongly. He makes plays other linebackers, really good linebackers, don’t make. But the combined weight of those quick tackles or busted blocking schemes does not account for what has been an underwhelming coverage profile to this point in his career, and the according loss of value on the eighth overall pick that the Bears are currently enduring.