LB Roquan Smith to play for Bears despite ‘busting my ass and not being rewarded’

Smith is in a contract standoff with the team and hasn’t participated in practice since the Bears reported for training camp last month.

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A photo of Bears linebacker Roquan Smith on the sideline at a recent preseason game.

Smith is entering the final season of his rookie contract.

Nam Y. Huh, AP Photos

Star linebacker Roquan Smith ended his standoff with the Bears on Saturday by returning to practice and agreeing to play out his contract.

It closed a hold-in that lasted more than three weeks, during which Smith sat out 15 practices and two preseason games but opened a new — potentially more dramatic — chapter.

Smith said there’s nothing left to discuss with general manager Ryan Poles after months of fruitless and “distasteful” contract talks and plans to use this season to vault himself to the top of the free-agent market next year.

“I’m just going to take it, run with it [and] bet on myself,” he said Saturday in his first news conference since April. “The negotiations are over right now.”

He added, “There’s no more offers at this time, and I don’t think there will be any during the season. My full focus has shifted to the season — just this season. . . . My full intention is to play this season and whatever happens, happens.”

He also doesn’t anticipate being traded after the Bears declined his request.

“I’m just gonna go out there and be the best teammate I can be, best guy in the locker room I can be to those guys,” he said. “And I’m gonna do it the same way I’ve always done it: 100 miles an hour and won’t let up.”

Smith went through individual drills Saturday afternoon and will progressively expand his workload to be ready for the season opener in three weeks.

Coach Matt Eberflus was “super-excited” to see Smith on the field but offered no other insight or opinion, saying, “That’s between Ryan and Roquan.”

Without a new deal, Smith will play the last season of his rookie contract for $9.7 million and become an unrestricted free agent. That’s an uneasy scenario, considering the dangers of his sport, and he believed he was entitled to more security after piling up 524 tackles, 14 sacks, five interceptions and a forced fumble in his first four seasons.

“I’ve busted my ass so long here, and [it’s frustrating] not being rewarded with something I thought was rightfully deserved,” Smith said. “I’m moving past it now . . . and going out there and enjoying the time with my guys because that’s who I truly care about.”

But this mess isn’t going away.

The Bears can keep making counteroffers until free agency starts in March. And, more important, unrestricted free agency isn’t as unrestricted as it sounds. The team can use the franchise tag on Smith in 2023 and ’24.

“I’ll get there when I get there,” Smith said. “The franchise tag should be a nice number next year, whatever it is.”

It’ll probably be close to $20 million.

“That wouldn’t be bad,” he said with a smile.

It’s nowhere near what Smith sought, however. He “definitely” wanted to become the NFL’s highest-paid off-ball linebacker, exceeding the five-year deals All-Pros Shaquille Leonard ($99.2 million with $52.5 million guaranteed) and Fred Warner ($95.2 million with $40.5 million guaranteed) signed last summer.

Guaranteed money was Smith’s priority, and he bristled at the Bears including “de-escalators” in their offer, which would lower future pay if he didn’t hit certain performance benchmarks.

Smith hasn’t played to Leonard’s or Warner’s level and hasn’t made a Pro Bowl, but the market for top players rises every year, and the salary cap inflated by 14.1% this season.

The path that led Smith and Poles to this point leaves them with plenty to repair if they want to make this work for the long term.

It would be wise for both sides to do that. The Bears are short on surefire building blocks for their future, and Smith is at the start of his prime at 25. As for Smith, Eberflus’ defense seems like an ideal fit to maximize his versatility.

But damage has been done.

Smith ripped Poles in his Aug. 9 public letter asking to be traded, saying the front office “doesn’t value me.” He accused Poles of refusing to negotiate in good faith and trying to take advantage of him with “take it or leave it” offers.

Poles responded by saying he still hoped to sign Smith to an extension but would do whatever was in the Bears’ best interests if it became necessary to trade him. He added that discussions were complicated because Smith represents himself, so the team’s rationale for not meeting his asking price was delivered directly to him rather than being filtered through an agent who could manage the tension.

“There’s emotions involved, and it’s tough,” Poles said. “It’s a very unique situation that we’ve had to deal with.”

Once Smith went public, the Bears rescinded their goodwill gesture of putting him on the physically unable-to-perform list. That meant Smith had to practice or face team discipline. He said Saturday the team did not fine him.

Because Smith has forgone an agent, presumably to avoid paying up to 3% in commission, by rule only he is allowed to conduct his NFL business. His camp apparently tried to circumvent protocol when a man named Saint Omni, who appears to be part of the Life Line Financial Group in Los Angeles, contacted teams about potential trades for Smith.

The NFL management council sent a memo alerting all teams of Omni’s actions and reiterating that dealing with him was prohibited. Smith said Omni “has my best interest at heart” and has no regret about trying to handle this without an agent.

“Times are changing, and I feel like players want to be at the table to have full transparency and know what’s actually going on,” he said. “When you’re there yourself, you see it with your own eyes. You know for a fact what’s going on.”

That means Smith should know exactly what the Bears think he can’t do. He should have a detailed account of why Poles wouldn’t pay him Leonard or Warner money. And that’ll make up his to-do list to get the contract he covets.

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