For someone whose absence was a topic of conversation every day of Bears training camp, inside linebacker Roquan Smith has flown under the radar through the first four games of his NFL career.
He hasn’t won NFC Defensive Player of the Month like Khalil Mack — or the weekly honor given to Danny Trevathan. He hasn’t returned an interception for a touchdown like Prince Amukamara or had three sacks (and one shoved official) like Akiem Hicks.
On the field, the No. 8 pick in the 2018 draft does little to call attention to himself — except play well.
“There’s not a lot of talking going on by him in regard to being loud or chirping or anything,” coach Matt Nagy said. “He just does his job. He puts his blinders on, and he rolls. And that’s what I like. He just makes plays.”
It’s perhaps the best compliment a coach can give a rookie: He fits in. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is hesitant to list specific areas in which Smith has improved — “I don’t have a Golden Goose answer for you,” he said — but gives a general answer that speaks volumes. He has gotten better “just everywhere, all around.”
There have been moments when Smith has been unsure of certain coverages or tweaks to the scheme, Fangio said. But he blames that on Smith’s status as a rookie more than on missing 29 days of the preseason because of a standoff over language in his contract. Rather, Smith has been able to use the very trait that allowed him to leapfrog Nick Kwiatkoski after only one game as the starter: his speed.
“His physical play and fast play is what I really, really like,” inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires said last week. “And now you tie it into a guy that’s starting to understand what we’re doing and knows what we’re doing. And that’s what’s coming after the last couple of games. That’s what’s special.”
The Bears will need that quickness Sunday against the Dolphins. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, for all his flaws, and running back Kenyan Drake are two of the fastest players in the league at their positions. Slot receiver Albert Wilson had the fastest speed of anyone not named Tyreek Hill this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, when he reached 21.74 mph on a 74-yard touchdown catch in Week 3.
Asked about his ability to play fast, Smith responded with a question of his own.
“Force equals what?” he said.
Reporters surrounding him took a couple of incorrect guesses before the Georgia alum recited Sir Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion.
“Mass times acceleration,” he said.
Being able to play at full speed is proof that he knows the Bears’ playbook. Smith has 18 tackles and one sack — on his first NFL play — plus one pass defensed in four games.
“I just feel like that comes with preparation — and then also playing in a defense very similar to this one [at Georgia],” he said. “And then just the defensive coordinator making a lot of great calls. And then it all boils back down to preparation.”
There are areas he knows he needs to improve. Smith said he can always shore up his tackling, a skill he was unable to practice between the college national title game and the Bears’ season opener because of the standoff and a hamstring tweak on his second day of practice. He can get better at diagnosing plays before they happen, too.
But those things will get better with time. And that’s perhaps the most exciting part about Smith’s rookie season.
“Just playing,” Fangio said. “The more you play, the more [experience] you get, the more comfortable you get. You see more things, so the next time you see something, maybe it’s not a first time. Just playing will make you better.”