By Robert Zeglinski
Almost unanimous praise for a Bears’ first round draft selection is an unfamiliar concept. When Chicago went out and selected 2017 Butkus Award Winner – given to college football’s best linebacker – Roquan Smith in April, the unthinkable became reality. One of the safest picks in the draft (if any draft selection can be considered “safe”), Smith has been revered as the next step in special Bears’ linebacking tradition. Expectations, regardless of whether they’re justified, sees the consensus as putting Smith’s name among such legends like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher.
That’s for solid reason: Smith’s as good of a bet as any other 2018 defensive rookie to terrorize NFL offenses from the get-go.
But how far can his skill set take the Bears exactly … particularly in 2018? Based on historical context and traits, Smith’s place as the heir apparent true face of Chicago’s defense (currently a vacated slot), should be well-regarded. Even if Smith doesn’t receive recognition in the form of any trophy, his presence and play will have a profound effect on the franchise. He is as “immediate impact” of a prospect as there is: having already received first-team snaps in the Bears’ minicamp to close off-season activities in June.
While Smith remains officially unsigned to a contract, no one at Halas Hall appears to be concerned given the compatibility between the pair. Not to mention a history of Bears’ draft picks, such as Mitch Trubisky last summer, taking well into July to sign on the dotted line.
In the first of a training camp series examining where the Bears stand on a variety of organizational issues heading into Bourbonnais in July, it’s time to put Smith under the microscope and measure a proper bar for his play as a rookie. And, whether he has a shot at Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Roquan Smith, LB
Weight: 236 pounds
Quotable: “Sometimes you have to thank God for unanswered prayers, right?” – Kirby Smart, Smith’s coach at Georgia regarding the young linebacker’s play
Strengths: Natural mover in space, pinpoint football intelligence, dominant in man coverage
The reasons the Bears felt the need to plug in Smith to their defense was obvious: he’s as pro-ready of a linebacker as any in the past few years. Which frankly, the Bears needed given health woes of 2016 free agent acquisition Danny Trevathan and the recently released Jerrell Freeman. Inside linebacker didn’t seem like a tremendous need for the team now (at least from a glance), but neglecting to take care of the future when they had an opportunity to nab someone such as Smith would’ve been shortsighted.
Despite being traditionally undersized (if there is such a thing in an NFL that emphasizes quickness over raw power), Smith uses incredible quickness to help him get to the right spots time and time again like a seasoned veteran. No one closes in space like he does. His ability to change direction on a dime and diagnose how an offense is trying to attack him gives him wisdom beyond his years.
You can’t neutralize Smith at his size, if you can’t get your hands on him.
What should particularly help Smith in Chicago is his proficiency in coverage. In a passing NFL, Smith is the embodiment of a linebacker than can more than hold his own against running backs, tight ends, and yes, receivers. He doesn’t waste space and understands how to take away throwing lanes using his athleticism. Since the Bears play in an NFC North with the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, and Lions’ Matthew Stafford: Smith’s talents here are sorely needed.
Weaknesses: Size, tendency to get washed away
Where Smith’s instincts serve him well as a linebacker, they also betray him. Seeing as how he proves to be so fast in getting to the football, he can occasionally veer off into less than efficient paths to ball carriers. These moves leave him in piles and easily cleaned up offensive lines. If he’s going to become the star the Bears believe he is, Smith has to find a happy balance of controlled aggression that allows him to stay patient and keeps hands of much larger men off his smaller frame. Not the most pressing of concerns, but a flaw nonetheless.
Historical rookie performance context of current top NFL LB’s
Before Smith, there wasn’t an off-ball linebacker drafted in the top-10 of the draft since 2012. The NFL has changed dramatically in the ensuing six years, making it fruitless to compare Smith to just one player drafted in a similar slot. So, let’s examine Smith on a measuring stick next to current elite inside linebackers drafted all over the place to set reasonable statistical bars for 2018.
*Luke Kuechly, Panthers, No. 9 overall (2012): 103 tackles, eight passes defensed, two interceptions (*won DROY)
Bobby Wagner, Seahawks, No. 47 overall (2012): 85 tackles, four passes defensed, three interceptions
C.J. Mosley, Ravens, No. 17 overall (2014): 99 tackles, eight passes defensed, two interceptions
Based on these figures, anything around 95 tackles, seven passes defensed, and at least two picks would be a launching point towards Smith living up to his immense expectations with the Bears. Think of him as a green rookie receiving oodles of playing time, flashing as often as possible, and only needing experience to reach the same heights as his peers.
Can Smith win Defensive Rookie of the Year?
The short answer is yes. The long and more realistic answer is yes … with caveats.
Inside linebacker used to be the premier position of any NFL defense. They’re the signal callers that get everyone else in sync and are most easily visible at the forefront of their teams. It used to be that they were praised in the national spotlight for these responsibilities above everyone else, especially when it came to award season.
However, with the rise of analytics and more efficient team building in the modern era, their importance in an NFL defense has been rightfully understated. They are relentlessly valuable players that most teams still need, but their value pales in comparison to turnover-forcing defensive backs, and of course: pass rushers.
For Smith, this is an unfortunate turn of events with the Bears (in the unlikelihood he cares about individual awards) because an inside linebacker hasn’t won Defensive Rookie of the Year since 2012: when Kuechly was honored. From 2012 to 2017, two cornerbacks and three pass rushers were summarily rewarded for their rookie efforts, showing a change in thinking. Unless Smith enjoys a prolific, productive season: he’s not likely to take home individual hardware.
And even then: a cornerback with an assortment of interceptions, or pass rusher with double digit sacks likely gets the nod over Smith. The magnifying glass of the league’s evaluators doesn’t smile upon his position anymore.
Does Smith not taking home any award negate what he can accomplish with the Bears as a rookie in 2018, though? Of course not. The nature of a humble and athletic linebacker like him means he’ll plug away regardless of attention he receives for his work. Players of his ability at his position don’t come around often, and they don’t need to be at the top of the defensive totem pole to shine.
Something says Smith should be prepared to take Chicago’s defense to the next level: whether he’ll be recognized for it or not.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.