Roquan Smith Starts 2021 at an Elevated Level

The Bears inside linebacker is reaching a point where he'll be taking over the leadership role of a defense with plenty of fading players.
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It's Roquan Smith's defense now .

The fourth-year inside linebacker last season broke from the pack with a handful of statistics, exceeding the production of top veteran inside linebackers around the NFL who received postseason accolades ahead of him.

Now he's in a position to be the defensive leader as a young standout while others who were key parts of the Bears defense in the past are entering the downsides of their careers.

The fact Smith showed up for all the offseason on-field work only underscored his commitment.

"What I'm feeling right now and I'm seeing it is now for him going into his fourth year is you're really feeling him continue to be an unbelievable leader, but really be that guy on defense, which is what we need, that guy in the center right there," Bears coach Matt Nagy said.

 Smith enjoyed a real breakout year even while veterans like Seattle veteran Bobby Wagner and Rams linebacker Fred Warner won Pro Bowl spots ahead of him without better statistical seasons.

"I'm feeling more motivated than last year, in my honest opinion," Smith said. "I'm not too focused about last year. That was last year and my thing is I don't care about all the postseason accolades and different things like that. That's for others to decide on.

"My job is to go out there and show them that I'm best at doing what I'm doing. So that's my thing."

Smith did more than talk about his commitment when he showed up at organized team activities to work while the only other defensive starters who did were safety Tashaun Gipson at the very end, and the possible cornerback/slot cornerback candidates. 

Eventually, all the starters got together at minicamp except for nose tackle Eddie Goldman.

"If you're not getting better, you're getting worse in my opinion," Smith said. "So I feel like there's a lot of things I've learned out there, bonding with some of new guys that are here, with some of the rookies as well and also just learning little new things into the defense, so I thought it was great."

There were times in the past where some doubted Smith's commitment. He had a strange personal issue which cost him a game against Minnesota in 2019, and his focus didn't always seem to be there year-round.

Now that he is entirely zeroed in on playing inside linebacker to the best of his ability, the absence of other veterans earlier at the OTAs hardly seemed an issue to him.

"I feel like it didn't bother me at all," Smith said. "Everyone has their own reasons. Everyone has to deal with their own things."

Part of Smith's personal commitment revolves around restoring the defense to where it was before it began slipping last season.

"Last year for the first half we were playing some really good ball and then we fell off," Smith said. "I can't pinpoint a thing or two exactly. I just know we wasn't getting the job done.

"So I just know that at the end of the day we have to get the job done and at the tail end that wasn't the way we play defense in Chicago. So all we have to do is just build from that and continue to get better."

It was easy to pinpoint one problem at the very tail end of that stretch. Smith had to leave in the first half of the season-ending loss to Green Bay due to an elbow injury. The Bears didn't have him in their biggest game of the year, the playoff loss at New Orleans.

It was a position where they lacked depth, and they also were suddenly without the one defensive player who elevated his game the most over the course of the year.

While they went from sixth in fewest points allowed after 10 games to finish 14th as a team in fewest points allowed, Smith's stats soared. His game took off starting in Week 4, actually.

From then on, he averaged 9.1 tackles and 6.5 solo tackles. He had been averaging 6.6 tackles and 4.6 solos in the first three games.

Smith finished with 96 solo tackles, two behind league leader Avery Williamson. He was seventh in total tackles with 139 and tied for second in the league with Devin White at tackles for loss with 18.

Nagy sees Smith taking over mentally, as well as physically. 

The end result could make him a force league-wide as much as it makes him the unquestioned leader of the defense in Year 4, one year before his contract season.

"He wants to learn, he's willing to be a sponge," Nagy said. "He doesn't think he knows everything. He's extremely motivated internally.

"And so when you have that, it's either you have that or you don't and it's not fabricated, it's not false, it's very organic. So I am so pumped to see what he does this year."

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