Roquan Smith’s contract impasse puts Bears GM Ryan Poles in tough spot

The Bears first-year general manager appears unfazed by Smith’s possible training camp holdout. “My feelings for Roquan don’t change at all. I love the player and the person and that won’t change.” Still, the pressure is on to get a deal done.

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Bears linebacker Roquan Smith led the Bears with a career-high 163 tackles (96 per game) last season.

Bears linebacker Roquan Smith led the Bears with a career-high 163 tackles (96 per game) last season.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Bears general manager Ryan Poles, who came into the job with eyes wide open, has had his share of adversity in his first six months on the job.

A deal with his biggest free-agent target, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, fell through. Three players were arrested in the offseason. The Bears were docked an organized team activity for violating offseason practice regulations. Poles fired LaMar “Soup” Campbell, the team’s popular director of player engagement, reportedly while Campbell was on vacation. Defensive end Robert Quinn held out of offseason practices, and his status is in question heading into the first practice of training camp.

But linebacker Roquan Smith’s potential holdout over stalled contract negotiations is the problem that most threatens to leave a mark. This is the one that won’t blow over and won’t be forgotten if it ends poorly.

Poles tacitly acknowledged as much Tuesday when he addressed the elephant in the room in his opening news conference to kick off training camp. He wasn’t going to wait for someone to bring it up.

“I want to address the Roquan Smith situation,” Poles said at the end of his opening remarks. “My feelings for Roquan don’t change at all. I love the player and the person, and that won’t change.

“The one thing I will ask everyone here — I know I am going to get a lot of questions, and I get it. I’m just not gonna talk about contracts and all that. I want to make sure we addressed it, though, in terms of my feelings for him. Nothing changes.”

As it turned out, Poles did awkwardly answer a few questions but didn’t add anything else of substance that shed light on Smith’s situation. He said he was told Smith was at Halas Hall but didn’t know if he would participate in practice or be a “hold-in” — a player who reports to the facility to avoid a fine but doesn’t practice.

“I don’t know what his intentions are,” Poles said.

The Smith drama has put Poles in a bit of a spot. Chicago takes its linebackers seriously, and while it’s sometimes difficult to keep the good ones happy (Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs), it’s worse when they leave (Wilber Marshall).

To Bears fans, signing Smith to a long-term extension is a no-brainer. He has been one of the best linebackers in football since being drafted eighth overall in 2018 and was a second-team All-Pro selection the last two seasons. He had a career-high 163 tackles last season. And he’s 25, entering the prime of his career.

But it’s a little different from Poles’ perspective. For one thing, he knows what Smith is asking for. And if Smith wants to beat the five-year, $98 million extension that linebacker Darius Leonard signed with the Colts last season, it’s not unreasonable that Poles might balk.

As good as Smith has been with the Bears, he just hasn’t produced the takeaways that Leonard has. In four seasons in Matt Eberflus’ defense in Indianapolis, Leonard was responsible for 30 takeaways (11 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries). In the same four seasons, Smith has six takeaways (all interceptions, with one returned for a touchdown).

That might explain the impasse, but at some point, the Bears are going to have to get a deal done, barring some trade offer they can’t refuse. Smith is a low-risk, big-ticket player — as opposed to Eddie Jackson, who was unlikely to repeat the five touchdowns and 16 takeaways that were largely the reason for the four-year, $58.4 million extension that made him the highest-paid safety in the NFL in 2020. Smith is very likely to be as productive as he has been through the next four or five seasons — and maybe even better in the same Eberflus defense that turned Leonard into a takeaway machine.

Maybe that’s what Poles is waiting to see. But it might end up being a chance he’ll have to take.

Bears fans will forget Larry Ogunjobi and Soup Campbell. They won’t forget Roquan Smith.

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