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Saturday Spotlight: Roquan Smith

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Linebacker Roquan Smith.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Name: Roquan Smith

Position: Inside Linebacker

Nickname: Ro

Number: 58

Age: 23

Time with Bears: 2 seasons

The Past:

“With the 8th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select...Roquan Smith. Linebacker. Georgia”

Roquan Smith had been a Bulldog for 7 consecutive years. Now suiting up in Chicago, he would be playing under a new mascot title for the first time since before high school.

Smith grew up in Macon County, Georgia, and attended the local high school of the same name, the bulldogs, and Roquan excelled on the football field there. He impressed college scouts to the tune of a 4-star ranking by both 247 Sports and ESPN, two leaders in scouting compilations and rankings.

In February of his senior season, Smith committed to play college football for the UCLA Bruins, but a week later backed out of that commitment and opted to stay in-state and play for the Georgia Bulldogs. Asked at the time what aspects Smith could improve upon in his collegiate career, his high school coach Larry Harold Jr. predicted that Smith would “add more weight to his frame, add more strength,” and that “...his natural instinct and raw athletic ability will help next year for the ‘Dogs.”

Smith played sparingly in his freshman season, climbing up the depth chart from being allegedly unlisted in preseason to contributing heavily in the Bulldog’s final stretch of games, including logging 1.5 TFLs (tackles for losses) in their win over Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Georgia finished the season 10-3, but in a surprising move fired head coach Mark Richt and hired longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to take over their program.

In 2016, the sophomore Smith became a starter and absolutely crushed the game. To open the season against North Carolina, Smith logged 2 TFLs, and 5 solo tackles. He also started establishing himself as a premier coverage linebacker. Even with the departure of star pass rusher Leonard Floyd, Georgia still presented an excellent pass rush. Roquan Smith was tasked with coverage over the middle, and his football instincts were on full display. If you only watch film of him in coverage starting at a second after the ball is snapped, and never paid attention to where he lined up before the play, you would think he was a defensive back. He finished his sophomore year with 52 solo tackles, including 5 TFLs, and Georgia finished the year 8-5 with a win over TCU in the Liberty Bowl.

In his junior season, Smith upped his solo tackle log to an astounding 85, with 137 total tackles. Those kinds of numbers tell you exactly what the film does as well, which is that Roquan was everywhere in 2017. He appropriately won the 2017 Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in the country. After the Bulldogs won the SEC Championship and Smith was named the MVP of the game, he elected to take his talents to the NFL and entered the draft.

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Smith was selected with the 8th overall pick by the Bears, who weren’t exactly desperate for a linebacker. Incumbent starter Jerrell Freeman had spent most of the previous season removed from the game due to failed drug tests, and most reports were saying that the Bears were impressed with young Nick Kwiatkoski. Nevertheless, the opportunity for a new “quarterback of the defense” couldn’t be passed up. The Bears were counting on Mitchell Trubisky to develop into an NFL star at quarterback, so they weren’t in the market for one themselves in a draft where 5 went in the 1st round. After the Colts snagged Quenton Nelson at number 6, the Bears were almost locked into selecting Smith.

After a brief contract holdout over guaranteed money, the rookie linebacker signed his rookie contract and suited up for a team with a mascot other than the Bulldogs.

Smith wasted no time in showing what he could do in the NFL. In the opening game of 2018 against the Green Bay Packers, Smith came off the bench. For the very first play of his young career, he was sent on a pass rush. Packers quarterback Brett Hundley dropped back, failed to find an open man downfield, and after Khalil Mack forced Hundley out of the pocket the rookie Smith cleaned it up by taking the quarterback down for a sack. Smith ended up leading the team with 122 total tackles in 2018, and was considered by some to be a Pro Bowl snub that year.

Expectations were high for Roquan entering his second year as a pro in 2019. With defensive coordinator Vic Fangio leaving to coach the Broncos, the Bears altered their defensive philosophy in minor ways to accommodate newly-hired Chuck Pagano’s blitz-heavy approach. Roquan was expected to “man the middle” and help out more in run support when fellow inside linebacker Trevathan was sent on blitzes, taking away some of Roquan’s star potential in the passing game. Nevertheless, he was running up a great amount of tackles with 101 in total when he unfortunately tore his pectoral muscle in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. Roquan did not return in 2019, but entered 2020 hungry for more than just new quarantine recipes.

The Present:

If you’re disappointed in the performance of the Chicago Bears so far this season, and looking for a bright spot, look no further than number 58 on defense. Roquan has had a monster year, and it has unfortunately gone largely unnoticed by the national media who can’t get over the Bears’ joke of a quarterback situation. On defense, the Bears have been great, although less able to carry the team through games the way they were able to in 2018. While they aren’t running interceptions back for scores, this defense has been keeping the games close (week 12 notwithstanding) and giving the Bears a chance to win - if only they could score. Roquan has been a huge part of that.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

According to ESPN, Smith is currently tied for 1st in the NFL with 70 solo tackles, also tied for 2nd in the NFL with 15 TFLs. Roquan Smith has gotten better every year since his first year at Georgia, and he deserves a Pro Bowl appearance to add to his career accomplishments. You can vote for him here.

The future:

Smith is playing in the 3rd year of his 4-year rookie contract. He was selected in the first round, so the Bears have a team option to pick up if they want him for an expensive 5th year. The Bears would be wise to do so, as well as give him a longer contract to keep him in Chicago for a long time. He’s only 23 years old and has a very bright future ahead of him.

In week 13, the Bears play the Lions in a game which may decide who finishes last in the sad division known as the NFC North. Roquan, like many current Bears, has excelled against the Lions in his career. The first time he played the Lions, he picked up the 3rd sack of his career bringing quarterback Matthew Stafford down. Two weeks later, he reminded Stafford who he was, bringing him down again while averaging 8 solo tackles between those two games. In last year’s ugly win over the Lions on Thanksgiving, Roquan brought backup quarterback David Blough down twice for sacks. 4 of Roquan’s 9 career sacks, nearly half of them, have come against the Lions. Send him.

Week 13 prediction:

8 solo tackles, 11 total tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack