At times over Roquan Smith’s first two years in the NFL, the Bears weren’t sure exactly where his career was headed. They should know by now.
He is next in the franchise’s succession of great inside linebackers and is the prototype every team wants: A cerebral, every-down player who can ruin everything for the opponent. He has elite strength and speed at the position, and he has the mind to decipher what offenses want to do before they snap the ball.
Coach Matt Nagy has gotten a clear view of Smith’s value as he sees firsthand how difficult it is to run the offense when he’s on the field. It’s approaching the level of Khalil Mack, who regularly makes practice difficult by bursting through the offensive line. Nagy’s daily chess matches with Smith have been just as exasperating.
He derailed goal-line work Friday by reading the play quickly enough to intercept rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ shovel pass and had a clear path to run it back for a touchdown. When a linebacker is smart enough to upend a quick play like that, fast enough to play pass coverage and brawny enough to blast any rusher backward, he’s a game-changer.
“The anticipation that he uses — you’ve seen him the last couple of years on some of these screens when he’s just flying through there, blowing the running back up before he gets the ball,” Nagy said. “He’s one step ahead.”
Now it’s time for the Bears to get one step ahead on making him their centerpiece and avoid whatever pitfalls could lie in a contentious negotiation for a contract extension, which is what happened with wide receiver Allen Robinson.
The 49ers took care of star Fred Warner with a five-year, $95 million extension last month that set a record for inside linebackers. Then the Colts broke it Sunday by paying Darius Leonard $99.3 million over five years. All three were in the 2018 draft class, with Smith going No. 8, Leonard in the second round at No. 36 overall and the 49ers landing Warner in the third at No. 70.
Smith probably won’t quite touch their windfalls — Leonard is a two-time All-Pro, and Warner was an All-Pro last season — but he’ll be close.
“My time will come,” Smith said at the start of training camp. “I’m not too worried about that. I still have a lot to prove.”
That last part isn’t true, of course. While Smith hasn’t picked up accolades like Warner and Leonard, he’s in their tier. Pace and Nagy don’t have any unresolved questions about what Smith can do.
Smith carries a $6 million salary-cap hit this season and is set to make $9.7 million on his fifth-year option in 2022. A new deal likely would eliminate the option and cement him through 2026. It would be a jarring concern if the Bears don’t have that deal in place before the season opener.
In three seasons, Smith has 253 tackles, including 13 for loss, a forced fumble and four interceptions.
Former Panthers great Luke Kuechly was the gold standard at the position over the past decade, infuriating opposing offenses by knowing their playbook as well as they did. When asked what Smith needs to do to reach Kuechly’s level, Nagy had no hesitation in saying he believes Smith is already close at 24.
“He’s not too far away from that [with] the way he studies,” Nagy said. “This guy is obsessed. He’s obsessed with being the best linebacker in the NFL, and I love that.”