When defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last met with reporters on July 31 in Bourbonnais, there was a challenge dropped in among his cryptic answers about the extended absence of Bears rookie linebacker Roquan Smith.
“I’m always concerned about everything,” Fangio said then. “But great ones adjust. We’ll adjust.”
After a 29-day contract impasse, it’s now on Smith to show how great he can be.
The Bears announced Monday night that Smith will meet with reporters Tuesday after an abbreviated practice at Halas Hall. The full team will then depart for Denver for joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday.
It had become apparent that the standoff with Smith was nearing an end in recent days as the Bears packed up and prepared to leave training camp in Bourbonnais. Communication between the Bears and Smith’s camp, led by Creative Artists Agency’s Brian Ayrault, had been steady throughout, with only intermittent breaks in the talks.
Smith’s anxiousness to return was presumably a factor. He has remained in Athens, Georgia, during the dispute, and his college team, Georgia, practiced for the first time Aug. 3.
According to the rookie wage scale, the contract will pay Smith about $18 million guaranteed, including about $11 million in bonuses. At issue during the holdout were specific pieces of contract language, including those related to financial protections Smith would get from the Bears if he were to be punished under the NFL’s new use-of-helmet rule.
Debating who won and who lost in the dispute won’t matter much in the long run, just as long as Smith turns out to be the winner the Bears believe they drafted. They were roundly praised for selecting him in April, with analysts predicting he would immediately upgrade a solid defense that had been short on true difference-makers.
In the meantime, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski won’t go down without a fight. He earned the right to be in the middle of Fangio’s defense after strong performances in Bourbonnais.
Smith, however, has as much time to win the starting job as Kwiatkoski has to lose it.
Smith’s 29-day impasse was just two days shorter than defensive end Joey Bosa’s contract dispute with the Chargers two years ago. Bosa finally signed on Aug. 29, 2016, three days before the Chargers’ final preseason game. Smith has more time this year because the Bears played in this year’s Hall of Fame game on Aug. 2. The Bears have three preseason games left, though it’s arguably not in the Bears’ or Smith’s best interest for him to play against Broncos on Saturday, given the amount of practice time he has missed.
That said, Smith has nearly a full month to prepare for the season opener against the Packers and to beat out Kwiatkoski.
And he’ll need all the time he can get. He’s not an end like Bosa, but rather an inside linebacker in the middle of a complex defense run by Fangio, who will make him earn every snap. Smith didn’t play much with starters during organized team activities, and now he’s behind in reps and conditioning.
His work on his own isn’t on the same level as what Kwiatkoski, Danny Trevathan and the other inside linebackers experienced with Fangio and their position coach, Glenn Pires, in Bourbonnais.
But if Smith is as good as the Bears believe he is, he should be able make up it.
“I think he has the potential to be a good player, a really good player,” Fangio said.