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NFL Draft

Move Over Khalil Mack, Bears’ Defense Belongs To Roquan Smith

  • The Draft Network
  • September 20, 2021
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Dick Butkus. Mike Singletary. Brian Urlacher. Roquan Smith?

Sure, Smith isn’t on the same level as those great—Hall of Fame great—Chicago Bears linebackers yet, but with each passing week, he’s working his way up that steep mountain of expectations that come along with playing inside linebacker in Chicago.

Smith was dominant in Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He filled the stat sheet in a way that’s only been seen from the likes of Urlacher over the last several decades. Smith ended Week 2 with a team-high eight tackles, one sack, and an interception that he returned for a back-breaking touchdown.

Smith’s dynamic interception earned praise from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow after the game.

“We went four to his side and he made a really good play,” Burrow said. “You can tell that he has studied that play before and he has seen it and he pushed really fast and made a really good play.”

“I didn’t think he was going to throw it,” Smith said of the interception. “He did, though, and (I) picked it and the rest was history.”

Smith’s incredible performance gained respect from more than just Burrow. He received a 92.3 grade from Pro Football Focus (on their first review), which if you’re new to the analytics giant’s grading scale, is an elite performance.

This sack of Burrow helped Smith earn those high marks:

Smith entered Week 2 after an 11-tackle performance against the Los Angeles Rams in the opener and now has a team-best 19 tackles through two games.

It’s time to officially recognize Smith as the heartbeat of the Bears’ defense. That title no longer belongs to Khalil Mack or Akiem Hicks. It’s Smith who’s the defender making the game-changing plays in 2021 and it isn’t a surprise with how his career has been tracking over the last few seasons.

Now in his fourth year out of Georgia, Smith has three straight seasons of more than 100 tackles on his resume, including a career-best 139 in 2020. Last season was the first year he played a full 16 games and it was an appetizer for a player whose ceiling has not yet been defined.

In Sunday’s win over the Bengals, Smith showed the NFL all the reasons why he was valued as a blue-chip draft prospect in 2018. He was lauded as an instinctual sideline-to-sideline missile who was tailor-made for today’s NFL defenses following his standout career with the Georgia Bulldogs. No play was out of reach because of his range. Burrow and the rest of Cincinnati’s offense learned that the hard way in Week 2.

The Bears (wisely) picked up Smith’s fifth-year option in his rookie contract last summer and while he’s under contract through the 2022 season, it’d be smart business for GM Ryan Pace to begin setting the parameters for a massive second deal. C.J. Mosely (New York Jets) currently has the largest payday for inside linebackers—five years, $85M, $17M AAV per Spotrac. At his current pace, Smith will (and should) demand more.

Smith hasn’t received any league-wide accolades so far in his career. No Pro Bowl teams, not even a nod on the NFL’s Top 100 list. Assuming he can stay healthy this season, that’ll all change. Of more significance, however, is his standing in the Bears defense.

It’s his group now. And for a city that loves its inside linebackers, that just feels right.

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