All the Bears want from inside linebacker Roquan Smith is a boring — beautifully boring — season. Something along the lines of 100-plus tackles, a handful of turnovers and zero causes for concern would be perfect.
Smith remains a bit of an enigma as he enters his third season. He’s very good and has the potential to be great. All-Pro is certainly on the table for this guy. But the Bears need him to stay healthy and engaged.
No worries, Smith said Wednesday. No matter what you saw on Instagram or wherever else, regardless of the challenges presented by the pandemic and even with him rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle, he described his preparation for this season as ideal.
‘‘Honestly, I thought this was the best offseason I’ve had,” Smith said. “I was able to focus on myself, home in on all the little details . . . so I’m just excited to showcase it.”
He was in the process of doing that last season when he stunningly stepped away from the team the morning of its Week 4 home game against the Vikings. Less than two hours before kickoff, the Bears downgraded his status to doubtful, then shortly ruled him out.
Adding to the curiosity of the situation, Smith was at Soldier Field and watched the game from the sideline.
All the oddities surrounding his absence never were explained beyond saying he missed the game for personal reasons, and he was back in the starting lineup a week later when the Bears played in London. Amazingly in today’s environment, he and the team have managed to keep the real story a secret.
Smith is certainly entitled to his privacy, but the effects of whatever kept him out that day lingered. A month later, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was still fighting off questions about why he didn’t look right. Smith finally snuffed out the uncertainty with a big game against the Chargers at the end of October.
“It just took awhile for everybody to see it and for him to feel like himself,” fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said.
Sadly for Smith, his resurgence was short-lived. He headed to injured reserve with the pectoral injury in early December and finished with 101 tackles in 12 games.
Whatever the reasons were, it was a stilted and frustrating season. It weighed on him throughout the last several months and left him unfulfilled as he eyed his next chance, which comes a week from Sunday at the Lions.
“I’m very excited — I think I have a lot to prove,” Smith said.
That’s true on multiple fronts. This essentially will be a contract year for Smith. The Bears have to decide on his 2022 option based on how he plays this season, or if he’s convincing enough, they could secure him with a long-term extension.
And despite being only 23, Smith isn’t a kid anymore. He’s well past the point of being Trevathan’s apprentice. He’s a full partner now and should have as much of a voice within the defense as any other veteran.
“I definitely feel like the role is a little different from initially when you’re a wide-eyed rookie and you’re coming in not knowing much,” Smith said. “I definitely think [responsibilities] do increase a little bit.”
Hopefully he’s ready for that because the Bears’ run defense is banking on him being full-go in every aspect. The team was ninth in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (102) and tied for fourth in yards allowed per carry (3.9) last season despite frequently playing from behind, but it had better depth with starting-quality linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski available.
With him gone to the Raiders, there’s no obvious reinforcement behind Smith and Trevathan going into the season. They’re both indispensable. And with Trevathan now in his 30s, it’s time for Smith to take the lead.