1st-and-10: Bears will miss Roquan Smith, but time will tell how much
Like Wally Chambers, Wilber Marshall, Willie Gault and Greg Olsen before him, the Bears have lost productive players in their prime — and regretted it. But good drafting and player development can ease the pain.
Will Roquan Smith be the next Wilber Marshall? Or Greg Olsen? Or Willie Gault?
Trading Pro Bowl- or All-Pro-caliber players in their prime generally yields mixed results at best. The Bears traded All-Pro defensive tackle Wally Chambers, 26, to the Buccaneers in 1978 and used the first-round pick they got in exchange to draft future Hall of Famer Dan Hampton.
But that was a bygone era, with Hall of Fame general manager Jim Finks working his magic. He traded a former All-Pro coming off knee surgery for the eventual fourth overall pick in 1979. Hampton became an all-time great. Chambers played two seasons for the Bucs before retiring at 29.
In 1988, the Bears traded wide receiver Gault, 27, to the Raiders for draft picks that turned into cornerback Donnell Woolford — an eight-year starter and one-time Pro Bowl player — and quarterback Peter Tom Willis. Gault was missed, but it wasn’t one of those deals that haunted the Bears for years to come. And whatever regret lingered from that deal doesn’t compare to what the Bears felt after general manager Jerry Angelo’s ill-fated trade of Olsen, 26, to the Panthers for a third-round pick at the start of 2011 training camp.
That wasn’t even about money but rather Olsen’s fit as a tight end in coordinator Mike Martz’s offense. A year later, Martz was gone and Olsen was emerging as one of the best tight ends in football, with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2014-16. The Bears packaged the draft pick they acquired from the Panthers with another third-round pick to get wide receiver Brandon Marshall. But that wasn’t nearly enough to quell the criticism of the Olsen deal as one of the most nonsensical trades in Bears history.
The Smith trade is most reminiscent of Marshall’s departure in 1988. The No. 11 overall pick in 1984, Marshall was a destructive outside linebacker who had emerged as the Bears’ best defensive player in the post-Super Bowl XX years. Like Smith, he was 25 and wanted to be the highest-paid player at his position.
Marshall was a restricted free agent after his fourth season in 1987. The Bears could have matched the Redskins’ five-year, $6 million offer, which made Marshall the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history at the time, but instead took two first-round draft picks as compensation.
It was a regrettable move but didn’t quite elicit a historic Lou Brock/Greg Maddux level of regret. Marshall played at a Pro Bowl level for most of his five seasons with the Redskins, helping them win the Super Bowl after the 1991 season and being named a first-team All-Pro in 1992, but unlike Olsen, he wasn’t better with his new team than he was for the Bears. And the Bears acquired two productive starters with the first-round picks: wide receiver Wendell Davis (No. 27 in 1988) and defensive end Trace Armstrong (No. 12 in 1989).
The Bears led the NFL in scoring defense in 1988 with Jim Morrissey a capable replacement for Marshall. Their once-vaunted defense faded from there, but it’s unlikely even Marshall could have prevented that. Quarterback Jim McMahon’s health is still the biggest reason the Bears won only one Super Bowl in the Mike Ditka coaching era.
Right now, trading Smith looks like a deal that could blow up in general manager Ryan Poles’ face. Smith is the kind of player who could flourish in the Ravens’ defense for several years. But given the realities of the NFL and the windows of opportunity that often close fast for players, as well as teams, things often aren’t as bad as they appear. Especially if you draft well.
The top seven players the Bears regret losing: 1. Bobby Layne (Hall of Fame quarterback); 2. Bill Brown (four-time Pro Bowl running back); 3. Chuck Howley (five-time All-Pro linebacker and the only player on the losing team named MVP of the Super Bowl); 4. Olsen (three-time Pro Bowl tight end); 5. Robbie Gould (made 96.5% of his field-goal attempts — 82 of 85 — in his first three seasons after being cut); 6. Marshall (All-Pro linebacker); 7. Don Meredith (three-time Pro Bowl quarterback).
The Bears liked Smith but didn’t love him, something that was made ever more clear when coach Matt Eberflus was asked if he would have wanted Colts GM Chris Ballard to draft Smith had guard Quenton Nelson not been available at No. 6 overall in 2018. The Bears took Smith two picks later. The Colts took linebacker Shaquille (nee Darius) Leonard at No. 36.
“Yeah, I don’t think at that time [that] Ballard was in the business of taking an off-the-ball linebacker at 8,” Eberflus said. “I don’t think I could have convinced him of that.”
Smith’s departure means none of former GM Ryan Pace’s five first-round draft picks has signed a second contract with the Bears. Kevin White (2015), Leonard Floyd (2016), Mitch Trubisky (2017) and now Smith (2018) are gone. Only quarterback Justin Fields (2021) is left.
In fact, since Mark Hatley, the Bears’ former vice president of football operations, signed linebacker Brian Urlacher in 2000, only four of 18 Bears first-round picks have played more than four complete seasons with the team: defensive lineman Tommie Harris (2004, seven seasons, 104 games); offensive lineman Kyle Long (2013, six-plus seasons, 77 games); quarterback Rex Grossman (2003, six seasons, 36 games); and cornerback Kyle Fuller (2014, six seasons, 96 games).
The Bears’ first-round picks since 2001 have averaged 4.2 full seasons with the Bears. Not good.
The 42 points the Bears’ defense allowed against the Cowboys on Sunday are more than what Eberflus’ defense with the Colts allowed in four seasons. That defense allowed a high of 38 points four times, once in each season.
The 42 against the Cowboys are also the most points a Bears defense has allowed since 2014, in back-to-back games against the Patriots (44) and Packers (48). Sunday’s breakdown was nowhere near as hapless as those games.
Eberflus plays the two-point conversion game too early. He went for two after Khalil Herbert’s 12-yard touchdown run cut the Cowboys’ lead to 28-23 with 9:42 left in the third quarter. A subsequent two-point conversion attempt after Fields’ 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cole Kmet also failed, leaving the Bears behind 42-29 with 13:40 left in the fourth quarter. Had the Bears just kicked the PATs, they would have trailed 42-31 — within a field goal and a touchdown/two-point conversion.
John Fox, then the Panthers’ coach, did that in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Patriots in 2004. Had he just kicked a PAT after an early fourth-quarter touchdown, the Patriots’ field goal in the final seconds likely would have only tied the game instead of winning it.
Quentin Johnston watch: The 6-4, 215-pound TCU wide receiver, who has size and speed, showed off his grit against West Virginia last Saturday. Twice leaving the game with an ankle injury, he gutted it out and returned to catch a 55-yard touchdown pass in the Horned Frogs’ 41-31 road victory.
Johnston had four catches for 76 yards for the game. He has 42 catches for 650 yards (15.5 average) and four touchdowns in eight games this season.
Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Saints quarterback Andy Dalton completed 22 of 30 passes for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 117.2 passer rating in a 24-0 rout of the Raiders at Caesars Superdome.
Special mention: Falcons wide receiver Damiere Byrd had three receptions for 67 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Falcons the lead in a 37-34 overtime victory over the Panthers.
Bear-ometer: 7-10 — vs. Dolphins (L); vs. Lions (W); at Falcons (L); at Jets (L); vs. Packers (W); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (W); vs. Vikings (W).