LB Roquan Smith ‘absolutely’ envisions staying with Bears on contract extension

This should be an easy deal to make. Both sides have said they want to work something out, and Bears GM Ryan Poles ideally wants it done before the season starts.

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Roquan Smith is shown here taking selfies with Bears fans after a game at Soldier Field.

Roquan Smith, the No. 8 overall pick in 2018, is nearing the end of his rookie contract.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

No one at Halas Hall will have as much effect on coach Matt Eberflus’ record than quarterback Justin Fields. But linebacker Roquan Smith is next on the list.

As Eberflus lays the groundwork for the Bears’ defense, Smith isn’t just some guy. He’s the guy. Eberflus needs him as a partner, not just another player.

Fortunately for Eberflus, Smith is eager to form that relationship. The Bears are launching something new, and Smith is passionate about spearheading it.

“That’s a heck of an opportunity to have,” he said Wednesday. “Resetting things and starting over fresh — new faces, new regime — it’s a great opportunity to be the face of the new regime and do whatever it takes to make this the best regime in Bears history. That’s my plan.”

Speaking of plans, Smith intends to see that through to the end. His contract runs out at the end of this season, and he has dodged that subject at every turn over the past year, but all indications are that he and the Bears will finalize something that keeps him around.

Given the recent deals for Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, Smith’s extension should land somewhere near five years and $100 million.

General manager Ryan Poles is well aware of the market and seems fine with the potential price. Smith will be worth it. He had no hesitation saying last month that he wants to do a deal before the season begins, and Smith envisions being a Bear for the long term.

“Absolutely, yeah,” Smith said. “That’s my plan.”

That’s good for the Bears as they try to redirect the defense’s slide over the last few seasons. Smith arrived as the No. 8 overall pick in 2018 and helped them establish an overwhelming defense, but it slipped to great, then good, then middling.

It might get worse before it gets better. The Bears traded star pass rusher Khalil Mack for draft picks, swept out their top defensive tackles and have yet to make a substantive addition at cornerback.

Eberflus is reputed to be a defensive mastermind, but it helps to have star power. And at the moment, Smith is his biggest star. There’s no debating he’s the Bears’ best and most important defensive player.

“Roquan playing the position that he’s in, playing inside linebacker for us, is a huge role,” Eberflus said. “[Brian] Urlacher and [Lance] Briggs were big components to the great defense that they’ve had here in the past, and that’s going to be no different.

“We’re looking for those same types of guys. We want a pair of guys in there that are really dominant, and we’re going to work toward that. Roquan is in those plans, so we’re excited about where he is.”

At 25, Smith seems poised to break into the NFL’s top tier of inside linebackers this season, regardless of whether Eberflus plays him at the middle or weak-side spot. The idea of him playing on the weak side like Leonard did for Eberflus in Indianapolis, where he has been an All-Pro three times already, is tantalizing because of his speed and skills.

Of the three most prominent linebackers of the 2018 draft class — Smith, Leonard and Warner — Smith is second in tackles (523), sacks (14) and interceptions (five).

As impressive as Smith has been, the Bears are optimistic he’s still ascending. He hasn’t reached Leonard’s level. No one else has, either, but that’s the standard at his position. Smith, who was second-team All-Pro the last two seasons, has more ground to cover.

Eberflus expected Smith to become this type of player when he evaluated him coming out of Georgia. The Colts could’ve had him at No. 6 but opted to address a different need by taking guard Quenton Nelson before landing Leonard early in the second round.

But Smith was tempting. And what Eberflus sees now is an advanced version of everything he liked about him four years ago.

“I had a chance to spend a whole day with him [before] he was drafted . . . and I think the world of Roquan Smith, just as a person [and] his retention rate,” Eberflus said. “He’s done a good job so far. I like the way he moves. He catches the ball well. That’s an important part of our defense.”

The most important. When Eberflus surveys his personnel, he knows Smith is the closest to a sure thing, and he’s as vital to the blueprint on that side of the ball as Fields is on offense.

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