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Roquan Smith Played the Business Game in His Holdout With the Bears

The Bears' rookie linebacker held out over language in his contract stating whether the team could reclaim part of his guaranteed money if he was suspended for an illegal hit with his helmet.

The final statline on Roquan Smith’s holdout: 29 days, 15 practices, two (of five) preseason games.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday afternoon that the Bears’ first-round pick was close to signing a four-year, $18-million guaranteed slotted deal, per the CBA. The Bears officially announced the signing on Tuesday morning. Smith, the last of 256 drafted players to sign, missed the entirety of the Bears’ training camp stay at Olivet Nazarene College in Bourbonnais, Ill. (teammates said Smith remained in Athens, Ga., working out at the University of Georgia during the holdout). After a light practice on Sunday the team packed up to head back to Halas Hall still without their rookie first-rounder, whose holdout had dragged on much longer than expected.

Much of the disagreement centered around language in Smith’s contract, specifically whether the Bears could attempt to reclaim Smith’s guaranteed money if he were suspended for an illegal hit with his helmet. Because the league’s newly updated rule leaves room for gray area (we’ve already seen confusion on how officials are legislating the rule in preseason games), Smith’s representatives at Creative Artists Agency—Todd France, Ben Renzin and Brian Ayrault—sought to protect him from losing money on a football play that is sometimes unavoidable for a defensive player.

Last season, Chicago linebacker Danny Trevathan was suspended one game for an illegal hit on Packers wide receiver Davante Adams. Instead of reclaiming the veteran linebacker’s guaranteed money, then-Bears head coach John Fox publicly defended Trevathan. That anecdotal evidence reflected well on Chicago, proving it had a history of accomodating a trusted and respected player even if contract language said the team had a right to do otherwise.

Trevathan said he’d been in touch with Smith throughout the holdout regularly, admitting that he’d even talked to Smith about his experience with suspension last season. “I have, I put it out there,” Trevathan said Sunday after practice. “The Bears worked on my side in that sense, and I’m sure it can work out vice versa. With the new rules there are going to be a lot more flags out there, so point in case, he want to get that out the way. Being new to the league, you just run into the ball and try to make a tackle, and you never know how it is going to end up, so you want to protect yourself and I think that's what he's doing. He wants to protect himself. You only get one chance to do this.”

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At some point in July, the Bears caved to that initial request, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, agreeing to tailor the language in Smith’s contract to protect his guaranteed money in the event of an illegal-hit suspension. (The Bears are not alone in this; the Bills, Jets and Giants have all made similar compromises in contracts regarding the helmet rule this season.) But after that agreement, the holdout continued over language regarding protection from losing guaranteed money in the event of a suspension for on-field behavior, like getting into a fight or arguing with officials.

Smith does not have a history of any on-field behavior infractions, so this seemed to be a standoff to set a precedent for both sides—the Bears for future players and CAA for future deals and clients. Haugh reported that only four teams in the league have written contracts with protections as far as what Smith sought. CAA also represents Sam Darnold, who held out from Jets camp for three days, and Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, who held out for 31 days in 2016.

It’s not clear yet whether it was the Bears or Smith’s camp who initiated the compromise. As reported by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Smith’s guarantees are only voided if he’s suspended by the NFL for three or more games for anything that happens during a play (this has only happened to one player—Vontaze Burfict—in the last decade). If Smith is punished for something happening after a play, the rookie’s guarantees will void only if he’s determined to be the aggragator of the situation or if he’s suspended two games or more. 

This agreement is a compromise, as neither side got exactly what it wanted, but Smith is the true winner here. Rookie contracts are often held up as examples when veterans negotiate their own deals, so by accommodating Smith, the Bears will likely have to honor this position in negotiations to come.

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On Tuesday after his first practice with the team, Smith smartly deflected questions about the specifics of the compromise and who or what exactly spurred the end of this holdout. He robotically repeated variations of the same answer: “I left that up to my agents and Mr. Pace.” “I kept my faith in my agents and Mr. Pace that they will get things situated.” “The contract stuff is for my agents and Mr. Pace.”

When asked if the directive to end the holdout came from himself, and if he had anything to do with pushing this deal along in the last couple days, Smith dodged the question and stuck to his line. “They got it figured out,” he said. “So I’m happy that they got it figured out.”

The Bears did not make general manager Ryan Pace available for comment on Tuesday.

Trevathan has nothing but respect for Smith choosing to prioritize his “business” over training camp. He thinks that Smith’s fight to protect himself from the consequences of a suspension that will likely become more common this season is only going to benefit the next generation of defensive players.

“It’s going to lead to a whole new evolution,” he says. “Because the game is constantly changing so the players need to be able to change with it. ... It can go either way, but I think it is smart to take that chance. You only get one chance to do it and protecting yourself is always the best choice. You only get a certain amount of time to be out here, so you want to protect all your money and assets.”

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Smith has a history of thinking critically about his rights as an athlete and how to better his position in a league designed to benefit the clubs and not the players. He started fighting big-money institutions as a senior at Macon County High School in Montezuma, Ga., when he refused to sign a national letter of intent to commit to play college football, based on the recommendation of his high school coach, Larry Harold. Harold saw that Smith did not have to sign the NLI in order to receive an athletic scholarship.

After Smith verbally committed to play at UCLA on national signing day, Smith learned that Jeff Ulbrich, the UCLA linebackers coach who had recruited him, had been offered a job with the Atlanta Falcons. According to The New York Times, UCLA called Harold throughout the day asking him to fax Smith’s signed letter, but he refused. Ulbrich ended up taking the Falcons job, and a week later, Smith chose Georgia instead of UCLA. He never ended up signing a letter of intent with Georgia, and his decision sparked a national debate about recruiting rights.

After the Bears’ last practice in Bourbonnais, rookie linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe, who roomed with Smith during OTAs, said that getting the daily reps is the most crucial part of camp for a rookie. “That’s tough to make up for,” he says. “I know [Roquan] is studying the playbook and doing as much as he can staying in shape, but getting the reps always helps. That's the biggest thing he’s missing out on.”

The Bears travel to Denver Tuesday for joint practices with the Broncos before the team’s third preseason game. Smith was drafted as a plug-and-play starter, but injury is the biggest risk for Smith now as he transitions to the NFL. He hasn’t had the reps to, “build callus,” as head coach Matt Nagy likes to call his physical practices. When Bosa ended his 31-day holdout, he quickly injured his hamstring while attempting to get up to speed for week one and missed the first four games of the season. Schefter reported that, depending on Smith’s physical condition, he could make his debut in Saturday night’s game at Mile High Stadium.

Over the last three weeks, Bears coaches did their best to downplay and even ignore Smith’s absence from training camp. But the stakes increased as the days went by, and it’s no coincidence that a day after Bourbonnais camp broke, the team reportedly got a deal done with its first-round pick.