Bears never fell in love with Roquan Smith

Trading Roquan Smith was unthinkable before Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus were hired, but a distinct possibility almost from the moment they entered the door at Halas Hall.

At the time, Smith was the best thing the Bears had going for them as the Ryan Pace/Matt Nagy era ended in January –a two-time All-Pro linebacker, yet still considered overshadowed and underrated, and still only 24.

He was the kind of proven star a general manager and coach inheriting a bad roster but eager to accentuate the positive could have hung his hat on in the opening press conference for Poles and Eberflus in January.

But given the opportunity to gush about the most accomplished player on their roster, both Poles and Eberflus passed. Poles didn’t even mention a single player. Eberflus lumped Smith in with the rest.

“There’s a lot of guys that excite me. Roquan is one of them,” Eberflus said when asked the roster he was inheriting in general and Smith in particular.

It was the first sign the Bears’ new management was not as enamored with Smith the same way those who had watched him play in four seasons with the Bears were. They liked him, but didn’t love him, which put them at odds with Smith from the start.

That difference of opinion continued during a contentious offseason negotiation for a long-term contract that was complicated by Smith representing himself without an agent. And then through a training camp “hold-in” that turned acrimonious when Smith demanded a trade and accused Poles of negotiating in bad faith — the low-point of a “distasteful” process that left Smith feeling bitter, unloved and under-appreciated.

And even into the season, where Smith ended up playing middle linebacker when he was presumed to be playing the weak side linebacker position in Eberflus defense that made Shaquille Leonard a $19.8 million a year star.

The dam broke Monday when Poles traded Smith to the Ravens for a 2023 second-round draft pick (currently No. 57 overall), a 2023 fifth-round draft pick (currently No. 162) and 31-year-old veteran linebacker A.J. Klein, a former starter with the Bills whom the Ravens signed off the Giants practice squad in Week 5.

The Bears also agreed to pay $4.833 million of the $5.4 million left on Smith’s 2022 salary. They really didn’t want to pay this guy $20 million a year.

And that’s why Roquan Smith is no longer a Bear. He drove a hard bargain — all the way to Baltimore. The headstrong 2018 first-round draft pick (No. 8 overall) — the NFL leader in tackles this season — vowed to bet on himself and become the highest-paid inside linebacker in football. And the Bears didn’t think he deserved it. Until further notice, it’s as simple as that.

It might turn out to be the prudent move, but for now it’s a bad look. Chicago cherishes defense and worshipslinebackers and Smith was the latest in a lineage of All-Pro players at that position — from George Connor to Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.

Truth be told, he is closer to Briggs than Urlacher at this stage of his career — more of a highly potent tackle machine than a destructive game-changing Hall of Fame. His 2022 season was typical of the conundrum the Bears faced. Smith leads the NFL with 83 tackles and has 2.5 sacks and two interceptions.

You could point to those numbers and say he’s winning his bet. Or you could point to the quiet five-tackle game against the Cowboys on Sunday, when he was unable to rise above the muck of a poor overall defensive performance and see why the Bears didn’t want to pay him $20 million a year.

That’s been the theme of the entire Roquan episode. Smith had every reason to think he should be the highest-paid inside linebacker in football –he’s accomplished and still young. And Poles has a case for not splurging on an off-the-ball linebacker who — even if he is the best inside linebacker in football — is not a dominant, destructive, $20 million-a-year force.

We’ll see what happens. And it’s not without risk for Poles. Smith figures to flourish in a Ravens defense that has a history of maximizing talented linebackers. And the Bears defense, which allowed 42 points to the Cowboys with Smith on Sunday, isn’t likely to be better without him. Who will replace Smith in the middle? Somebody who doesn’t want $20 million year. Other than that, it doesn’t really matter.

And that’s the point. Smith might be worth $20 million to somebody, but not to Ryan Poles, Matt Eberflus and the Bears. They’ll fill his hole with a workmanlike player and invest that $20 million in a position that can make a bigger difference — a defensive tackle, a defensive end or a wide receiver. That’s their plan and they’re sticking to it.

Smith embraced the legacy of the great linebackers who preceded him, but wanted to be a Bear for life at his price and not the Bears’. So now he gets his wish, “to play for an organization that truly values what I bring to the table.” But it remains to be seen if both sides will come out ahead.

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