Roquan Smith is loud on the field and quiet off it.
He’s happy to let his teammates brag about him. Fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan said last month Smith was ”one of the best linebackers to ever play last year.” He later admitted Smith doesn’t ”really buy into all of that. But I’m going to say it for him.”
Smith is fine with his teammates being annoyed on his behalf, too. They were the ones, he insisted, who were furious he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl last year. And wasn’t put on the Associated Press’ All-Pro first team in the offseason. And wasn’t on the NFL’s list of the top 100 players last month.
He’ll swear, too, that those snubs don’t bother him. And then he makes it clear they do.
Those honors are part of what pushes him, along with having to watch the Bears’ playoff game last season from the sideline because of an elbow injury suffered in the regular-season finale against the rival Packers.
There are other motivators, too. He’s up for a life-changing, big-money contract extension and, in the words of coach Matt Nagy, is ”obsessed with being the best linebacker in the NFL.”
”Honestly, deep down, you think about it,” Smith told the Sun-Times. ”Do you think I was a top-100 player this season? I’ll let you answer that. Most people that watch ball would know that, as well.
”The Pro Bowl stuff, it’s a popularity thing. I’m not out there tweeting all this stuff: ‘Vote me, vote me.’ That’s not something I do. Hey, I play ball. I come out in each and every game and do what I need to do, and I let everything else handle itself. I’m not too worried about, ‘Vote me into this’ and ‘Vote me into that.’ The Bears organization knows who I am for this organization.”
Soon, they’ll have to put a dollar value on it. Until then, they won’t need the Pro Bowl to tell them what Smith is worth as the centerpiece of their defense.
”You can do all the yapping you want on social media,” Smith said, ”but it all goes down between the lines. What you do between those is what really matters, as opposed to just speaking about things. And that’s what a lot of people do. But I won’t be one of those.”
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Almost half the players on the Bears’ starting defense in Week 1 have made the Pro Bowl at some point in their careers: outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and safeties Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson.
More than any of them — even Mack, who’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer — Smith is the future of the defense. Four of the five listed above are in their 30s; Smith is 24.
He’ll be the only homegrown first-round pick to play for the Bears against the Rams unless rookie quarterback Justin Fields somehow gets into the game. The two will share that distinction until the 2023 draft because the Bears dealt their first-rounder next year to move up to draft Fields in April.
Another reason Smith is the future: His style fits modern defenses perfectly.
”With today’s game spreading out and [there] being so much more spread-out formations, he’s a three-down backer that can hang with running backs in the pass game,” Nagy said. ”But then you can see he’s going to thump you, too. His arrow is extremely high. It keeps going up.”
There was no magic to his leap last season, Smith said. It was part of his natural progress from season to season. He started trusting himself more and second-guessing himself less. That allowed him to play faster. It showed.
Smith was the only defender in the league last season — and only the third since 2015 — to have more than 100 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He was second in the league with 98 solo tackles. Only Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, whose job it is to rush the quarterback, had more tackles for loss than Smith’s 18.
In AP All-Pro team voting, however, Smith finished with 10 votes, less than a third as many as the 49ers’ Fred Warner and the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner, who were named to the first team. Six players finished with more votes than Smith, the others being the Colts’ Darius Leonard, the Bucs’ Devin White and Lavonte David and the Saints’ Demario Davis.
Wagner and Warner were the two NFC inside linebackers named to the Pro Bowl, which is decided in part by a fan vote.
”Those chips everyone’s giving me to put on my shoulder definitely help,” Smith said.
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Smith is his own agent — at least for now. And he’s about to become a very rich man.
Sometime soon — the Bears like to conduct such business right before the season opener — the team will explore giving Smith a contract extension. There’s no rush; Smith is entering his fourth season and could play his fifth under the franchise tag. But the cap-strapped Bears would benefit from an extension, particularly after they bungled receiver Allen Robinson’s contract in the last 18 months, and Smith would get financial security.
The market already has been set by two inside linebackers from his 2018 draft class.
Leonard, the fourth pick in Round 2, signed a five-year, $98.5 million contract — with $52.5 million guaranteed — in August. Warner, the sixth pick in Round 3, inked a five-year, $95.2 million deal — with $40.5 million guaranteed — in July.
”The contracts they’re getting, they’ve earned them,” Smith said.
Does that set the bar?
”That’s what they call it,” he said, smiling.
Smith notoriously held out for the first 30 days of training camp as a rookie — the second-longest holdout during that collective-bargaining agreement — because then-agent Todd France disagreed about what guarantees in his contract could be voided. General manager Ryan Pace hinted Smith is finding a new agent.
”I don’t know what stage he’s in with the agent right now,” Pace said, ”but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Smith said he sees no benefit in explaining his agent status — or in talking about a contract that might exceed Leonard’s and/or Warner’s.
”I’ll just get there when I get there,” he said. ”I’m not too worried about that right now. That’s not my main focus at this moment.”
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Smith grew up idolizing former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who once called himself ”silent but deadly” and ”a cold killer on the field.”
Smith can relate to a man who lets his pads do the talking.
”I know he didn’t speak too much or say a whole lot,” Smith said. ”But I’d say it’s more so me being me.”
Bears newcomers noticed Smith in camp.
Quarterback Andy Dalton said Smith’s ”ability to dissect what’s going on and to just know what’s coming is pretty special.”
Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, a fellow Georgia alum, called Smith ”one of the top inside linebackers in the league, and he’s going to be one of those guys for a long time.”
Bill McGovern, his third position coach in four years, said Smith ”puts the burden on himself to get better.”
That burden comes with expectations.
”I don’t want to speak too much about what someone’s gonna see or this or that,” Smith said. ”When you turn the game on Sept. 12 against the Rams, we’ll see what I’m all about.”
And what is that? Smith needed only three words.
”Damn good ball,” he said.