Bears’ Roquan Smith announces his arrival as elite linebacker — at just 23
Smith leads the NFL in solo tackles and has 12 tackles for loss. He has been playing at a level that could put him in contention for All-Pro honors.
Just when everyone worried that Bears linebacker Roquan Smith might be slipping, that a promising career was at risk of being derailed by injury and off-field drama, he made it unmistakably clear where he is headed.
Smith has been dominant this season. General manager Ryan Pace’s choice to draft him No. 8 overall in 2018 has looked smarter each week, and Smith looks like an All-Pro.
He leads the NFL with 62 solo tackles and is fourth with 82 overall, is third in tackles for loss with 12 and has played all but two of the Bears’ defensive snaps this season. He is on pace for the Bears’ highest tackle total since Brian Urlacher’s All-Pro season in 2002.
Smith was good in his first two seasons, but this is different. This is the definitive answer about whether he can be a pillar of the defense for the next decade or more. This is an arrival, and Smith is only 23.
‘‘This now is an ascending player that is going to do nothing but get better and grow mentally,’’ defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. ‘‘With the level of play comes confidence, and . . . his confidence is off the charts.’’
As the Bears’ defense cycled out older players, Smith’s emergence was exactly what they needed. With Danny Trevathan starting slowly — he looks much better now — and Nick Kwiatkoski gone to the Raiders, Smith has kept the Bears steady at inside linebacker.
That was no guarantee after his first two seasons, and the biggest question mark was how he would play after suffering a torn pectoral muscle last December. He has been fine. More than fine, in fact.
Physical ability was never in doubt with Smith, who gives Pagano a unique weapon as a blitzer. Learning to decode complicated NFL offenses was a larger challenge, and Smith is playing like someone who knows all the answers.
‘‘I definitely feel like I’m [having] a pretty solid year right now, coming into my own, in a sense,’’ Smith said. ‘‘But I feel like there’s also room for improvement, things I can do better or see even faster. So there’s never a time where you’re, like, content with the way you are.’’
When he steps back and watches himself on film, Smith sees what everyone else has noticed all season. He looks faster, which is a result of being more on top of how opponents are scheming. And when he does make a mistake, there’s no need for any of his coaches to point it out; he knows it immediately.
‘‘What allows linebackers to take their game from one level to the next, really, is the key-and-diagnose aspect,’’ said Louis Riddick, a former NFL executive now on ESPN’s ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ crew. ‘‘[It’s] their ability to get off the spot and be headed in the right direction without false steps almost instantaneously, and you’re seeing him doing that.
‘‘You’re seeing him arriving at the point of attack, whether it be run or pass, in a flash. . . . He has done his homework in the film room, and then he is able to dial in on those things and apply them to games. And when you’re that fast and that explosive, it shows up play after play. That’s why his statistics are exploding.’’
As good as Smith has been as a run stopper, he has been equally impressive in pass coverage. Quarterbacks have completed only 58.5% of their passes when throwing at him—the best mark by any qualifying linebacker — and have a 63.3 passer rating against him, according to Pro Football Reference.
Smith also has chipped in a forced fumble, five pass breakups and a sack.
It all adds up to Smith being the well-rounded, every-down linebacker the Bears thought they were getting. He has developed into what they needed — just in time.