The Chicago Bears’ history and tradition at inside linebacker is unlike any other team and any other position in the NFL. The bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame confirm this, with names like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher the most famous of the monsters who’ve roamed the midway. So when the Bears selected former Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, expectations were naturally high.
Smith’s career in Chicago began with the normal ups and downs expected from talented collegiate prospects adjusting to the NFL game. His 2019 campaign was the most bizarre, including a Week 4 matchup against the Raiders that he missed for personal reasons. But he bounced back last year, earning his highest grade from PFF as a pro, and has upped his game in 2021 to the point where it’s time to consider him among the NFL’s top young defensive players.
Smith doesn’t turn 25 until next April, yet he’s already totaled 454 tackles just 3.5 seasons into his career. He’s off to a remarkable start this year with 93 tackles through nine games—which ranks tied for first in the league—and if he continues at his current pace, he’ll set a new career-high with 176. His current high water mark was set last season with 139. His three sacks rank second among linebackers and he’s added an interception for good measure.
Smith always seems to make timely plays, like he did against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9 with this sack of Ben Roethlisberger, which kept the Bears’ hopes for a win alive:
He made an even bigger impact with this pick-six of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow earlier this season in a game the Bears won:
Smith isn’t a perfect player, and he has to iron some consistency wrinkles before he deserves a place alongside the other Bears greats at the position—his good showing against the Steelers followed one of his worst games in Week 8 against the 49ers—but with time (age) on his side, we still haven’t witnessed the ceiling on Smith’s upside. And with just one year left on his rookie deal, Smith is setting himself up for a massive second contract (likely in Chicago) that could come as soon as this offseason.
General manager Ryan Pace would be wise to lock Smith up before he reaches his maximum upside. If he lets Smith enter 2022 as a contract year, his price will only go up. And it’s not only because of what he does on the field; Smith has become one of Chicago’s key leaders regardless of position. He addresses the media after tough losses, answers questions with class and honesty, and presents a good ‘face of the franchise’ for a team and a city that’s used to its defensive stars leading the way.
Smith showed some of that leadership after Monday night’s loss to the Steelers when he came to the defense of teammate Cassius Marsh, who was initially dogged for a taunting penalty that was, ultimately, one of the team’s costliest mistakes.
“That was a BS call,” Smith said. “The man’s been doing that celebration his entire career, and for that to be called一but hey, it is what it is.”
At his current level of play, Smith should find himself on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster at the end of the year. But as he said in September, he doesn’t let accolades like that define him regardless of how much he deserves it. He isn’t the kind of player who needs it.
“The Pro Bowl stuff, it’s a popularity thing. I’m not out there tweeting all this stuff: ‘Vote me, vote me.’ That’s not something I do,” Smith said at the beginning of the season. “Hey, I play ball. I come out in each and every game and do what I need to do, and I let everything else handle itself. I’m not too worried about, ‘Vote me into this’ and ‘Vote me into that.’ The Bears organization knows who I am for this organization.’”