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Growth from within: Bears’ Roquan Smith ready for take-off

The third-year inside linebacker — the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft — heads a group of young players whose development will be a big key toward a Bears rejuvenation in 2020.

Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith (58) had 100 tackles, two sacks, five tackles-for-loss and an interception in 12 games last season.
Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith (58) had 100 tackles, two sacks, five tackles-for-loss and an interception in 12 games last season.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Roquan Smith’s 2019 season seemed to be just getting started when it abruptly ended in Week 14.

After a mysterious last-minute absence in Week 4 against the Vikings for an undisclosed personal reason — and three sluggish games upon his return — Smith found his groove near midseason. He had double-digit tackles against the Eagles, Lions and Rams and finally was looking like the star in the making the Bears were expecting.

Against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field, he was never better. He had 16 tackles and two sacks, including a sack for a 13-yard loss with the game on the line — a third-and-nine at the Bears’ 26 with 41 seconds to play.

Eyeing a big finish, Smith, instead, saw his season end in the first quarter against the Cowboys the following Thursday night. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle making a tackle.

“Roquan was coming back to being Roquan — started off really fast and then we lose him,” Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano lamented after the season.

Smith is expected to be 100 percent healthy and ready for training camp whenever that starts. (Texans star J.J. Watt suffered a torn pectoral muscle Oct. 27 of last season and returned to play in the postseason, getting a sack against the Bills in a wild-card game. Smith had a similar surgery.)

And if Smith picks up where he left off, the 2018 first-round pick (eighth overall) is a candidate to take a gigantic step to stardom. For all the roster holes the Bears have filled in the offseason — tight end, cornerback, safety, right guard — Roquan Smith 2020 could end up being their biggest upgrade.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Bears inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said after Smith’s injury last season. “I feel terrible for him. But I also know what’s coming. He’s gonna come back and be better than ever.”

A complete season would help. As a rookie in 2018, Smith missed most of training camp and the entire preseason because of a contract holdout. Last year, he played 11 games from start to finish because of the personal issue and the torn pectoral muscle.

Despite the issues he has had in his first two seasons, Smith has been as good as advertised. His sideline-to-sideline speed, his instincts and his versatility — the ability to rush the quarterback, be a tackling machine and defend in coverage — give him a dangerous skill set for an inside linebacker. So far, he’s clearly general manager Ryan Pace’s best first-round pick. But by the eye test and Smith’s own testimony, he has a lot more to give.

“I saw unbelievable growth from him [in 2019],” DeLeone said. “From the first game to the 13th game, saw growth in him on and off the field. I see a 22-year-old guy who is only going to continue to improve.

“There were some ups and downs [in 2019], but the way he finished and the way he was climbing upward at the end of it — and the way I feel [about] his mindset . . . I see improvement and a really good upward trend for him.”

Smith is among several players the Bears are counting on to provide growth from within — the needed development of draft picks who have contributed in recent years but have room for more. Here’s a look at some of the others:

James Daniels, LG

The 2018 second-round pick (39th overall) was impressive as a rookie starter (10 games) but struggled after being moved to center last season. He was better after being moved back to guard in Week 10. He figures to stay there in 2020 and get a chance to re-establish himself as a long-term foundation piece of the offensive line.

Tarik Cohen, RB

Outside of Mitch Trubisky, no player’s drop in production illustrated the regression of coach Matt Nagy’s offense like the 5-6 Cohen, who looked painfully out of place in 2019. His rushing average dropped from 4.5 yards per carry in 2018 to 3.3 (64 carries, 213 yards). And his receiving average plummeted from 10.2 yards (71 receptions, 725 yards, five touchdowns) in 2018 to 5.8 (79 receptions, 456 yards, three touchdowns) last year.

Anthony Miller, WR

He’s already a bit of an enigma after two seasons, with injuries and focus/dedication issues hampering his potential. He had seven touchdowns in limited play as a rookie but only two last year, when he caught 52 passes for 656 yards. The potential is tantalizing — Miller had nine catches for 140 yards against the Lions in Week 13 and nine catches for 118 yards and a touchdown against the Packers in Week 15. But he has to put it all together.

David Montgomery, RB

The third-round pick (73rd overall) from Iowa State was drafted as a perfect fit for Nagy’s offense, but it didn’t work out that way in 2019, as every piece except wide receiver Allen Robinson seemed out of step, and Montgomery averaged 3.7 yards per carry (242 carries, 889 yards, six touchdowns). Still, he was deemed more a victim of a bad offense than a culprit. But he comes into 2020 with a lot to prove.