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All's in Place for Roquan Smith

2022 Bears Projection for Roquan Smith: Bears linebacker looks like an ideal fit at weak side but if it turns out to be in the middle they already know what he's capable of doing.

When Bears coach Matt Eberflus told his team to come for offseason work with their track shoes on, it seemed most Bears players took him to heart.

Roquan Smith definitely did. The fifth-year linebacker looked like he had been running since the end of January when Eberflus was hired, as he came to minicamp and OTAs looking slim and ready to move.

He'll get the chance in this new defensive system and it could prove to be exactly what he needs to convince skeptics about his abilities.

It's a style of defense made for big-play linebackers, and Bears history proves it.

Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs both did. Briggs had seven straight Pro Bowls and All-Pro status, Urlacher eight Pro Bowls, four All-Pros and a gold jacket as they flourished in the Tampa-2.

Smith doesn't have his first Pro Bowl yet, or his second contract, but he has the kind of defensive skill to elevate his game and has a scheme which could be of benefit.

"Roquan's done great," Eberflus said. "But we're gonna rely on him a lot. He has a great experience. He's a very good player and we're gonna rely on him a lot to lead the defense. And of those two, he's done a good job to this point.

"He's gonna have a great summer, right? He's already starting to work his body into shape and he's done a good job of changing and adjusting his body so far. And he's got five more weeks to show he's gonna keep getting better and better in the defense."

Running all over the field in a cover-2 zone scheme as weak side linebacker has Smith as excited as the coaches are to see him do it.

"My goal is to be the best linebacker in the league and best leader I can be for this team and I think if I do that I'll put us in a great situation of being a very good defense," Smith said.

Smith could play either weak side or middle in this defense, but his speed and ability to attack the ball make him ideal for weak side. Briggs and Tampa Bay hall of famer Derrick Brooks played that position in this scheme.

There are some obstacles.

Both Briggs and Brooks were in their second seasons when new defensive systems were put in place, and both realized improved statistics immediately, although not a dramatic jump. It took a few years as the rest of the team improved before they became dominant.

In Smith's case, he has already been in the league four years and played something similar to the former Bears 3-4 defense while he was at Georgia. So this will all be new.


Another factor in how effective Smith might be is his middle linebacker in the scheme. 

In this system, it helps the weak side to attack if there is a great middle in support. Briggs had Urlacher and Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl with Shelton Quarles as a middle linebacker. Quarles made the Pro Bowl in that 2002 Super Bowl season and had a strong 10-year career.

When Eberflus was linebackers coach under Rod Marinelli with Dallas, the situation was less stable. 

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They couldn't settle on a weak side. Sean Lee had done it in a similar scheme under Monte Kiffin, then got moved and eventually they had to go back to Lee on weak side as they didn't bring in another standout. 

It took Dallas until Eberflus' final season there in 2017 before they got the defense up into the top 10. Eberflus had much more success when he had that weak side spot manned by a great player with the Colts in Darius Leonard, who came via the draft in their first season under coach Frank Reich.

The Bears like to think they have a player who can be an effective middle in Nicholas Morrow, as he had done well in a similar system for a brief time with the Raiders. But no one could label him a great middle linebacker. So seeing Smith's true playmaking ability at its best might require waiting until the Bears have a middle linebacker they are more sold on than Morrow, who was available to them at only $3 million on a one-year deal. 

It is a defense requiring speedy linebackers and Morrow was only a hundreth of a second off Smith's 40 time when he ran at the combine.

It could be the Bears find Morrow can't handle playing the middle as well as they would like, but they already know Smith can do it based on his play as an inside linebacker in Vic Fangio's 3-4.  Then, they could eventually see Morrow is better using his speed at weak side attacking than as a middle. The two could be flipped, in that case.

"Nobody is defined 'Hey you're the Will (weak side linebacker), you're the Mike (middle), you're the Sam (strong side)," linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said during OTAs.

Until training camp, at least, Smith is approaching this with singular sense of purpose on the weak side.

"I think that's a heck of an opportunity to have, you know?" Smith said. "Obviously resetting things and starting over fresh, new faces, new regime, so I think it's a great opportunity to be the face of the new regime and doing whatever it takes to make this the best regime in Bears history. That's my plan."

It's what the coaching staff would have in mind, as well. 

There are a number of factors to negotiate first, and having Smith in top shape was merely the start.

Roquan Smith at a Glance

Vitals: 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, fifth year.

Career: 524 tackles, 348 solo, 43 for loss, 14 sacks, 17 QB hits, 5 interceptions, 17 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a recovery.

2021: 163 tackles, 95 solo, 12 for loss, 3 sacks, an INT, 3 pass breakups.

The Number: 6. Smith had just six missed tackles last year according to Sportradar. The 3.6% of his tackle attempts missed was his career best.

2022 FanNation Projection: 165 tackles, 18 for loss, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven