He’s too small. He doesn’t get off blocks. He’s self-absorbed. And he’s already put himself on track towards bust status because of aims for rookie contract protections. The list goes on.
Most of these criticisms of Bears 2018 No. 8 overall pick Roquan Smith aren’t new. Since last year’s draft process began, a lot has been made of what the former Georgia standout in Smith isn’t capable of, and why he’ll falter. For as much as he’s received praise for being an immediate impact talent, questions loom in the background at a loud whisper.
As Smith sits in the aftermath of a 29-day holdout, the timeline for his debut in a game remaining unclear, new faults like a mentioned supposed selfish disposition have materialized. Having missed the Bears’ entire time in training camp in Bourbonnais, somehow Smith’s undersized and scheme faults have been also magnified for convenience’s sake.
In an effort to logically break down Smith’s tumultuous tenure with the Bears thus far, let’s separate fact from fiction with every major query raised about him. It’s only fair, and presents the best possible means of moving forward as the inside linebacker prepares for his rookie season.
Smith is too small
Fact or myth: Myth
The way Smith’s 6-foot-1, 236 pound frame is talked about, you’d think a skinny wide receiver was being discussed if there was no context. As if he’s going to be pounded into oblivion by NFL offensive lines with no resistance.
What’s ignored is that the traditional 250 pound bruising linebacker doesn’t exist anymore in the NFL. If they still do, they’re dinosaurs of a league that’s passed them by. They’re tollbooth turnstiles offenses run through without paying the toll online afterwards.
What defenses need more than ever is terrific athletes at linebacker. Guys who can seamlessly move in space as they flip their hips and cover most tight ends and slot receivers. That’s arguably Smith’s best skill: he’s a speed demon with elite closing ability and instincts in pass coverage. It’s rare that an offensive position player actually out ran him in college, and it’s why even with his 236 pound stature he’ll thrive in the NFL.
Besides, it’s not as if Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hasn’t worked with “undersized” linebackers in the past. In San Francisco, future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis was 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. Meanwhile, his tag team partner in four-time First-Team All-Pro Navorro Bowman was 6-foot, 240 pounds.
Across the NFL in the past and now, “undersized” linebackers were or are the very class of their position. Seven-time Pro Bowler in the Bears’ Lance Briggs - a player Smith is oft-compared to - was ironically 6-foot-1, 238 pounds. The league’s gold standard and another likely future Hall of Famer in the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly is 6-foot-3, 238 pounds. And four-time Pro Bowler as well as three-time First-Team All-Pro Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks, is 6-foot, 245 pounds.
Would it be ideal if Smith was built like the 6-foot-4, 258 pound Brian Urlacher that could also run like the wind from sideline to sideline? Undoubtedly, but freaks of Urlacher’s build only come around so often.
There are a variety of reasons Smith could fail as an NFL player. His height and weight in direct comparison to linebackers Fangio has worked with in the past, and to star linebackers currently tackling and covering up a storm, isn’t one of them.
Smith doesn’t get off blocks
Fact or myth: Fact
The fear with Smith as a linebacker is that he relies on his stellar speed too much. If an offensive lineman gets his hands on Smith it’s over for him on most plays. He hasn’t learned how to engage guys up front properly yet. That’s why in the throng of a big game he can simultaneously be thriving all over the field, and on skates: as he was in Georgia’s Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma in January.
Though, for as much Smith struggles to wrestle free from a tackle or guard, that struggle is overblown. Most NFL linebackers are swallowed whole once a player that’s 60 to 70 pounds larger has them dead to rights. There’s almost nothing you can do when an offensive behemoth gets his body on you. That’s the reason in 3-4 defenses, like the scheme the Bears run, space-eating defensive linemen such as Eddie Goldman are so valuable in keeping linebackers free.
It’s also why the first steps, reactions, and quickness of a linebacker are important and where they get their inherent advantage. The Urlacher’s and Kuechly’s of the world, you name it: they all don’t do well in the context of a 320 pound man bulldozing them. They win with athleticism and play keys first. If a linebacker beats a lineman to a spot as ideally the more athletic player to where they possess the leverage, that’s when they make a defensive stop. They’re not going to win a battle of brute power straight up.
NFL defensive coordinators will always favor speed and instincts over pure size and power, because speed kills.
That isn’t to say Smith doesn’t possess power, as he certainly does. When he arrives at a ballcarrier, they know it immediately. It’s more that Smith will live off his speed early on his in his Bears career. You’d rather your linebacker be fast than an over-encumbered robot with limited instincts. You’d rather he be a Ferrari in pace than a moderate station wagon. The latter is the linebacker that most often busts as a professional.
If an offensive lineman can’t get his hands on Smith, how is Smith’s concern in getting off blocks so dire? This is an ability Smith still has to improve in, and also something he’ll likely never be proficient with. Smith not being able to get off blocks as the main and sole reason he’ll be washed out of the NFL is a fallacy.
Smith is selfish and his teammates already resent him
Fact or myth: Myth
The ugliest conjecture that emerged from Smith’s rookie contract dispute with the Bears was that he was a self-absorbed malcontent only focused on securing paychecks for the foreseeable future. That Smith, to his core, was only concerned with himself in sitting out Bears training camp while his teammates profusely sweated it out in the beaming Bourbonnais sun.
Never mind that there’s been no concrete evidence or words pointing to an entitled, affluent person. Or that none of those battling Bears have once publicly criticized Smith: both during his holdout and after he returned.
In fact, Smith received nothing but outright approval for what he was doing with his holdout as Bears players respected his battle. They understood the business and and threw themselves into his corner. It was always business, with no other connotations. They’re actual evidence of a humbled player working his way back in.
There was Sam Acho saying, “We’ve got his back regardless. I can speak for the whole team on that,” in late July. Acho hadn’t even had contact with Smith to that point.
At the same time there was his inside linebacking partner, Danny Trevathan, firmly espousing of Smith’s lagging behind, “He’s got some catching up to do, but we’ll catch him up no problem.”
And when Smith returned to the Bears after his holdout, the veteran Trevathan maintained nothing but effusive pride for the 21-year-old’s efforts in standing up for something that he believes matters in NFL player rights.
“I’m proud, because he made a decision and stuck with it,” Trevathan said after a Bears’ joint practice with according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “I’m more proud ... it’s going to lead to more people doing that.”
If Smith was a selfish monolith, nothing that’s surfaced would point to the idea. Everything lines up to him being a pillar and future defensive leader the Bears can rally around. Someone who isn’t afraid to speak up while the rest of the group stands idly by. Someone who has quickly earned the respect of his defense despite only being around them for roughly three months.
Smith will fail as a rookie because of how far behind he is
Fact or myth: Myth
Smith had hamstring tightness this week as the Bears elected to be cautious with him in the late preseason. Apparently, only football players recently returning from holdouts are susceptible to the vulnerabilities of the human hamstring. Clearly, Smith only had hamstring tightness because he wasn’t in football shape after his holdout, and when doing the math two plus four equals six.
And Smith’s teammate in Aaron Lynch, who practiced for the first time in over a month this week after hurting his hamstring at the start of Bears camp? Was he actually unhappy with his one-year deal, and therefore kept himself out of football shape?
The audacity, it burns.
Is it possible Smith has hamstring tightness because of the Bears practices he’s missed, and because he’s not as “in shape” as everyone else? Of course. Is that an absolute proven fact, given the prevalence of preseason and in-season hamstring injuries in the NFL every single year? Of course not. The former is merely an easier jump to conclusions.
Will all the preseason game time Smith is missing now be a death knell on the impact he brings to the Bears in 2018? Sure. But probably not.
Historically, missing NFL preseason time - rookie or not - means little. No one will remember Smith lumbering his way through August if he’s wrecking offensive backfields in October and November.
Historically, missing the first few games of a regular season also doesn’t automatically make a player a failure. Look no further than Joey Bosa and his hamstring in 2016, for a recent example. Pushing a player past his limits and or suffering an unfortunate season-ending injury in the preseason like Washington’s Derrius Guice tearing his ACL a few weeks ago, is what actually destroys a rookie year.
The teaching during practices and in the film room is what ultimately sets Smith apart as a Bears rookie, or sets him back. This was true before his holdout, and that certainty remains the same after the fact. While the Bears only have two practices and two preseason games left, there’s ample time for Smith to get acclimated afterwards and morph into the defensive dynamo the franchise believes he is.
If that means Smith isn’t fully contributing in Week 1 against the Packers, but featuring extensively in the remaining four months, so be it.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski and contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.