The Bears always had a bead on 2018 first round pick Roquan Smith, as he himself can attest to.
The signs were there when defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had a red carpet rolled out for him this off-season. After general manager Ryan Pace pulled out the stops to retain his services as coach, it only made sense the Bears would pursue a defensive toy for him. That came in the form of taking Fangio’s defensive centerpiece in Georgia’s Smith in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Everyone at Halas Hall was wholeheartedly prepared for this opportunity, with this Chicago defense ecstatically awaiting his addition. Especially Smith, who understood the relationship he built with the cushy Fangio when he met with the Bears in mid-April.
“I spent a great amount of time with coach (Fangio),” Smith said Thursday night at a podium in AT&T Stadium. “I know a great deal about his defense ... Chicago felt like home.”
With Smith, the Bears’ defense is almost complete. With Smith, that defense he discussed has an identity in the same way Fangio’s defenses in San Francisco once had with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Yes, he can be uttered in the same breathe as those two. Similarly, he can be seen as the future of the position akin to active stars such as the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly and Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner. He is, indeed, that good.
Fangio, who doesn’t smile publicly much, was likely beaming at the news because Smith was the best linebacker available in this year’s draft. The 2017 Butkus Award Winner is a blur of instincts, quickness, force when tackling, and leadership in one. A complete player that can have the Bears’ defense evolve.
Simply put, Smith is a bad ass and someone who plays with an edge and perennial chip on his shoulder. Either from those who dare call him at “undersized” at 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, or from his own creation to motivate the way the greats do. Anything is a perceived slight if it helps one become a better player.
This is a linebacker that was the tone setter for a Georgia defense and spearheaded a berth in the 2018 College Football National Championship Game. Smith was the face of a unit changing college football and assisted heavily in putting Georgia football back on the map. He relished the opportunity to confound offensive coordinators and act as the catalyst for his teammates. He sat at the podium in Arlington, Texas Thursday night shifting into that business mode for the Bears right away. The culture shift in Chicago has begun.
“A tremendous leader, first and foremost,” said Smith curtly, beginning to take the reins of his team.
And Smith’s team, it will be, if history forebodes anything. Bears’ linebacking history, that is. No one has the same kind of pedigree at linebacker that the Bears’ franchise does.
From the man who essentially invented playing linebacker in Bill George, widely the most frightening football figure ever in Dick Butkus, to the bulging eyes of Mike Singletary and freakish athletic ability of Brian Urlacher: there’s a Chicago flavor here for every type of player. Pick your poison. Smith joins this group prepared to build his own legacy. A “rich tradition” that’s he more than aware of, just got that much richer.
Barely containing his nervous but quiet excitement, Smith couldn’t help but revel in that tradition in his first NFL moment. “It’s surreal,” Smith said of his place among names he’ll be expected to live up to. “I’m just grateful to be a part of it.”
Each of the previous Bears’ great linebackers has brought something entirely different to the table.
George, was a smart player perfectly suited for the limited 1950’s game. Someone who understood offense’s and led George Halas’ defense well.
Butkus made you regret showing up to the same football field as him. He was an opponent you thought about, in a nightmarish fashion, well after the game was over.
With his booming voice and downhill play style, Singletary personified the 1980’s Bears. He’s the defensive lynchpin many think of first with those all-time teams.
While Urlacher, well, Urlacher was the mold of everyone that came before him. A player and athlete ahead of his time. The face of the franchise with billboards displaying cures for male-patterned baldness still spread out Chicagoland six years after his retirement.
As for Smith? He already has the undersized label adorned on him. A slight on his ability before he’s put strapped on the pads for the Bears. Criticism that understates his knack for reading, processing, and blowing up offensive plays before they get rolling. Smith’s primary strength and what he’ll come to be known for, is drowning out the noise and putting on an effective tunnel vision. Tunnel vision that doggedly takes him to the ball and skill players regret trying the small linebacker in space. he’s not shy about what he’ll offer the Bears. In his style, he’s already quickly processed it.
“They can expect me to be a relentless player,” said Smith. “I feel like I can enhance any defense.”
Like shortstop for the Yankees, or center for the Lakers, linebacker for the Bears holds a special place among the annals of sports history because of it’s diversity and sheer amount of transcendent players. Playing this position in Chicago comes with the heaviest amount of weight. From that respect, a rookie such as Smith in the world of hyperactive social media should crack under the pressure. Instead, a humble and grounded player like him knows his place and understandably is confidently measured. That reasonable humility makes Smith more than a worthy addition to what the Bears have previously enjoyed at linebacker.
They say if you don’t know your history than you’re doomed to repeat it. Which is odd, because Smith clearly knows his Bears’ history. He wants not only to repeat it, but to ascend above it. In the form of both billboards and consistent team success. He’s prepared to be the cover of the next epic Chicago defensive chapter.
“This is a childhood dream,” said Smith. “I’ve been waiting for it, I feel like I’m ready for it, and my skill set will transition over great.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.