Roquan Smith deserves respect. It’s hard to understand why he isn’t more celebrated among the national NFL media. He checks most of the boxes necessary. He’s a former top 10 draft pick. He plays on a team with one of the richest defensive legacies in the league. This past season was easily the best of his career and more than worthy of All-Pro recognition. Yet many people still don’t talk about him.
Why? The most likely explanations are two-fold. First is being surrounded by a lot of star power including Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Jackson. All of whom have made the Pro Bowl. Then there is the fact that other off-the-ball linebackers have stolen the spotlight in the past couple of seasons enough to where there isn’t much left to share. Still, that hasn’t stopped some people from recognizing how good Smith really is. Count former scout and NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks among them. When ranking his top 5 linebackers in the league today?
Smith was right there at #5.
“The swift linebacker and 2018 first-round pick has not yet received all-star accolades for his spectacular play, but scouts and coaches have a strong appreciation for Smith’s dynamic game. The fourth-year pro patrols the middle of the field like a junkyard dog with a nasty attitude and ferocious bite. Smith has posted three straight seasons with at least 100 total tackles, including a 2020 campaign that also featured 18 tackles for loss. As an explosive defender with A+ athleticism, instincts and impeccable timing, Smith is arguably the best run-through playmaker in the league, as evidenced by his impressive career tackles for loss (31) and (11) sack totals.”
There isn’t much else Smith can do. He was the best player on the Bears’ defense in 2020. He finished with 139 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, and two interceptions. He also missed only 5% of the defensive snaps all season. The guy was on the field all the time and dominant throughout. It was a foregone conclusion he’d have his 5th-year option picked up by Chicago. Now the question left to answer is how much his extension will cost.
If he delivers a year similar to 2020? One can safely presume it might be the first inside linebacker contract to break the $20 million per year mark. San Francisco 49ers star Fred Ward just hit $19 million. So that is the ceiling Smith will attempt to break through. GM Ryan Pace probably would love nothing better than to reward him. The linebacker represents not only his best 1st round pick but also the future of the Bears defense.
Roquan Smith is the next fixture. So who will join him?
That is the big question the Bears will need to answer. They probably have a year or two left of peak play at most from guys like Mack, Hicks, and Danny Trevathan. After that, it is likely a transition period will begin. One where the front office tries to shuffle the deck with younger talent in order to keep the unit strong. Smith is the focal point of those efforts. What nobody knows yet is who will be joining him.
The two most promising names to watch are Bilal Nichols and Jaylon Johnson. Nichols delivered his best season in 2020 as well, racking up five sacks, 13 QB hits, and seven tackles for a loss. He turns 25-years old in September. So he’s entering his prime. Johnson had a solid rookie year at cornerback with 15 passes defended and a 56% completion rate allowed. He has the look of a true cover corner. If those two can take another step up this year? Along with Roquan Smith, they’d form the next core of the Bears’ defense.
The timing of that would be fortuitous.
Especially since the team no doubt plans to shift a large portion of its resources away from the defense in order to start building around quarterback Justin Fields. So they may need to play it a bit cheap on the defensive side for a bit as they try to get their young passer off the ground. Smith morphing into a star would certainly ease those concerns.