Bears vote Roquan Smith captain: ‘We know what he means to the team’

The persistent drama around linebacker Roquan Smith’s contract standoff with the Bears has no impact on what his teammates think of him. Production typically trumps everything, and Smith is arguably the best player on this team.

That’s why, after sitting out more than three weeks at the start of training camp, sparring publicly with general manager Ryan Poles and actively looking to leave this team, Smith won a captain spot in the players’ vote this week.

“We understood why he was missing practice — that’s the business side,” defensive end Robert Quinn said. “When he steps on the field or in meeting rooms, he’s locked in. He’s been a professional.

“Him missing the time, that’s strictly business… They don’t want to pay him, and he’s trying to get paid as much as he can. You can’t be mad at anyone for that. But when he does walk in, his presence is well received. And when the lights come on, you know he’s gonna be there.”

Players voted for Quinn and Smith on defense, and quarterback Justin Fields and stalwart left guard Cody Whitehair on offense. A fifth spot will be filled week-by-week, presumably by coach Matt Eberflus, starting with running back David Montgomery in the opener Sunday against the 49ers.

As the Bears rebuild under Poles and Eberflus, Smith will be pivotal to the defensive side of that project. He is one of the best, most versatile linebackers in the NFL and is entering his prime at 25. Poles recently said he still hopes to sign him to a contract extension despite how poorly negotiations have gone.

Eberflus compartmentalized seeing Smith skip 15 practices and two preseason games as just business. He knows how important Smith is this season, and possibly beyond, and fully supported him being picked as a captain.

“No question,” he said. “On the grass, man, he’s been great. He’s been great in the locker room and he’s been great with the coaches.

“The negotiations didn’t work out the way that he wanted to and that we wanted to… but he’s been A1 on the football side, the coaches side, teammate side — all that.”

Smith has said repeatedly since ending his “hold in” that he wants to shift his focus fully to the game as he plays out the final season of his rookie contract for $9.7 million and marches toward free agency.

But realistically, it’ll be impossible to separate his performance from the broader arc of his future with the Bears.

Smith is third in the NFL in tackles (524) since the Bears drafted him No. 8 overall in 2017. He also has 14 sacks and five interceptions and was voted second-team All-Pro each of the last two seasons.

If he builds off that this season, he’ll be making the case that he’s worthy of the nine-figure extension he sought. It’ll emphasize his criticism that Poles “doesn’t value me.” It might make him even more determined to leave.

And if he’s good but not great, Poles will be justified in holding firm in his offer. It’ll validate whatever points he made during negotiations when making clear why he didn’t want to pay Smith as much as elite linebackers Shaquille Leonard and Fred Warner got last summer.

Everything Smith does or doesn’t do will be part of that long-term equation. But for his teammates, all that matters is what they get from him in games.

“The way he works and the plays he makes — that’s about it,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “We know what type of player he is and what he means to the team.”

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