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Draft analysis: Impressive rookie Roquan Smith should be a self-upgrade in 2019

After missing most of training camp and the entire preseason, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith (58, tackling the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph) led the Bears with 122 tackles last season. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Part 5 of an 11-part series previewing the NFL draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

Roquan Smith was a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie last season. But even with his impressive numbers — 122 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks — you could tell by the eye test that it was just a start for the inside linebacker from Georgia.

Smith got off to a late start after holding out for the first 29 days of training camp. He missed 15 practices and — after suffering a hamstring injury early after signing — all five preseason games.

He played eight snaps in the Bears’ season-opening 24-23 loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field and had only 18 tackles in his first four games.

But once he got going, he was as good as advertised as the eighth overall pick of the 2018 draft. Instead of hitting the rookie wall, Smith noticeably kept improving as the season progressed. He had 82 tackles in the last nine games of the regular season and seven tackles and an interception in the playoff loss to the Eagles.

“It was huge to watch him just kind of flourish, especially in the late part of the year,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “You talk to Roquan, and you can just feel him — no different than any player — just feeling comfortable in the defense. So now he’s not thinking as much. He’s just playing with his instincts, and he’s playing fast.

“Those are his greatest strengths — his instincts and his speed. So the sky’s the limit for him. It’s just exciting to see him grow. And I think you saw a glimpse of what he’s going to be, especially in the latter part of the season.”

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So as good as he was as a rookie, Smith is a candidate for a quantum leap in 2019. He’ll have the entire offseason program that he did not have last season. He’ll participate fully in training camp from the start and presumably in all the preseason games that coach Matt Nagy plays his starters. And, of course, he’ll benefit from all the lessons he learned in a fruitful rookie season.

With Smith and veteran Danny Trevathan coming off a solid season in which he also was a Pro Bowl alternate (102 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two interceptions, two sacks), the Bears are set at inside linebacker heading into the season.

Nick Kwiatkoski is a valuable reserve. The 2016 fourth-round draft pick from West Virginia played only 64 snaps on defense after starting the opener for Smith. But he started 13 games at inside linebacker in his first two seasons and likely would’ve been a productive starter if the Bears hadn’t drafted Smith.

Joel Iyiegbuniwe, a 2018 fourth-round pick from Western Kentucky, played only 23 snaps on defense as a rookie but still figures to provide depth.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Grading the Bears’ need: Low. The Bears have two Pro Bowl-caliber starters in Roquan Smith (who turned 22 on Monday) and Danny Trevathan (29). Nick Kwiatkoski has three seasons of experience in this defense. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ryan Pace took a flier on a player he feels has slipped too low. This front seven makes almost anybody a potential surprise contributor.

On the roster: Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Nick Kwiatkoski, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Jameer Thurman.

The five best draft prospects: LSU’s Devin White, Michigan’s Devin Bush, Alabama’s Mack Wilson, North Carolina State’s Germaine Pratt and Stanford’s Bobby Okereke.

Keep an eye on: Minnesota’s Blake Cashman was a walk-on who earned a scholarship and kept improving. He ended up a team captain and the Golden Gophers’ leading tackler last season. He was a standout at the combine, running 4.5 in the 40, with a 37½-inch vertical and 124-inch broad jump. He’s projected as a mid-round pick and special-teams prospect. But with some surprising skills and the football gene, there might be more there than meets the eye.

Close to home: Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards of Lake Villa, a quarterback at Lakes High School, had virtually no experience on defense, but the three-star recruit learned quickly. He led the Badgers in tackles in 2015, ’16 and ’18. He was a first-team All-American and Butkus Award finalist as a redshirt junior in 2017 and was All-Big Ten in ’18. He’s projected as a mid-round pick.