In 2018, the Monsters of the Midway boasted an elite defensive unit that carried the team into the playoffs while clinching their first division title in nearly a decade (2010).
While names like superstar edge-rusher Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Akeem Hicks drew most of the media’s attention, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith showed promise as one of the team’s most consistent playmakers.
Coming into the new season, Smith remains a criminally underrated part of Chicago’s front seven. Not only did he lead the team in tackles a season ago, but he also managed a respectable five sacks and an interception in Year 1. The ninth overall pick in last year’s draft, Smith flashed the kind of skillset that had many experts view him as the 2018 draft class’ best defensive player.
Whilst his 122 combined tackles placed 13th in the NFL, he ranked third among all rookies right behind Indianaoplis’ Darius Leonard (163) and Dallas’ Leighton Vander Esch (140). The difference between the three? Smith was the only one to miss his team’s offseason program and training camp after a lengthy contract holdout.
When thinking about just how productive Smith was as a rookie, it’s scary to wonder what his statistics would’ve looked like had he had been a full participant with the team last offseason. Coming into his sophomore campaign, a full training camp and preseason could pay dividends for the budding star.
Having to learn Vic Fangio’s playbook on the fly after finally signing his rookie deal in mid-August, Smith was limited to just eight defensive snaps in Week 1 against Green Bay last season. However, he made his impact felt right from the jump, collecting his first career sack on his very first play. With a new Defensive Coordinator in town, Smith will be able to learn Chuck Pagano’s defense at his own pace over the course of the next month or so instead of having it all thrown at him at once.
Tracing back to his utterly dominant freshman season, Smith was just two tackles shy of breaking the Bears’ rookie franchise record for tackles (124) set by Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher in 2000. The former Bulldog is a rare breed at the linebacker position in today’s NFL due to his combination of strength, speed, and lateral quickness.
The video below is just one example of how relentless Smith is in pursuing the ball-carrier. With 4.52 forty speed (second-fastest ever for a linebacker at the combine), he covers an incredible amount of ground. As
You want to talk about a guy who is relentless with trying to get involved in the play, Roquan Smith is that guy! This is one of the most impressive effort plays of the 2018 season. He is capable of making these game-changing plays. This is the kind of guy you want on your team. pic.twitter.com/yvLUhQQivE
— Dan DeYoung (@DanDeYoung80) July 21, 2019
When players began to report to camp, several teammates had nothing but great things to say about the second-year inside LB. Khalil Mack was the first to rave about his teammate. In Smith, Mack sees a player that has the potential to be the best in the league at his position.
“Ultimately, I feel like he can be an All-Pro player, along with Danny [Trevathan] on the inside,” Mack told reporters. “I feel like those two should take over the All-Pro position for these years. You can say that’s a large task for those guys. But I don’t think it will be.”
Akiem Hicks, a player who’s never shy when it comes to speaking with the press, also touched on Smith’s ever-developing game, explaining the 22-year-old’s limitless potential as he continues to acclimate himself to the professional level.
“Shoot, I thought he was great last year. I’m just going to be honest. I thought he played up to a standard that was above and exceeding what you can expect from a rookie linebacker, right? And so, I don’t know what he’s going to do next. Come take my job?”
While Hicks’ job seems safe from Smith’s taking anytime in the near future, these comments speak volumes to how special of a talent Smith truly is. If anyone knows a great defensive player when they see one, it’s Mack and Hicks.
His true breakout campaign should be all systems go when no. 58 impressed over the first weekend of Bears Camp with his athleticism on full display.
While Smith’s rookie production may have been overshadowed on a historically-great defense (first in the NFL in points allowed, rushing yards allowed, and takeaways), look for the Georgia alum to make his presence known this Fall.
Rest of the league beware, Roquan Smith is poised to put the league on notice in 2019.