Last month Roquan Smith talked about a chip on his shoulder for this season while coaches gushed about what a great player he has been and how he's very focused on the coming season.
"When he was healthy last year and playing right, you saw the player that we drafted and why we took him so high," Bears coach Matt Nagy said this past offseason. "Our outlook on him is very optimistic."
Bears coaches always talk up their draft picks.
"He had some excellent games and I think that the big thing this year is we gotta make that consistent and have that be every game," linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. "I think we all know that.
"But this is going into his third year, this is a big year for him, he knows that and I think it takes at the linebacker position, I do feel like, there's a gradual level where he's getting better and I think going into Year 3 he's going to have a chance to have a breakout year this year."
DeLeone called Smith's offseason start during virtual work in Zoom meetings a positive one.
"Ro, in our meetings, has been extremely inquisitive, asking the right questions, has been locked into everything we're doing," DeLeone said. "Ro is somebody who all the time is texting me and calling me with questions about football. He's thinking about football all the time.
"So, from that standpoint, I think he's been excellent. Now, I'd say I've always felt he's been like that. To me, Ro has always been a guy who loves football and is a football junkie. That part of it, I don't know that that's different."
What they've really thought about Smith's play is really known only at Halas Hall, and after this season it could become more obvious.
It's Smith's third season, and it couldn't be more critical for him to succeed. This much is certain.
The Bears talked up Mitchell Trubisky to the hilt for three years and then declined his contract option. They did the same with Leonard Floyd, constantly downplaying the significance of his declining sack numbers while stressing how great his pass coverage and run-stuffing abilities were. Then, after picking up his option, they cut him to avoid paying an excessive amount and brought in Robert Quinn for even more money.
Smith hits the important threshold after this season when his option will need to be picked up and would be in a much more commanding position with a strong season than if he came into the year after spotty play.
The Bears wouldn't do what they did to Floyd because fifth-year options once picked up are now guaranteed under the CBA. Before, they were guaranteed only in cases of injury. So it will be either a Trubisky style decline or a picked-up option.
Smith will need to make an impact without peculiar situations like last year's missed Vikings game due to a "personal issue." He missed the final three games with a torn pectoral muscle but says he is fully recovered.
It is possible the Bears really do have him graded higher and all the praise is the way they see it. It's not something Smith can count on though, and from the way he talks about it he realizes it has to be better.
"I definitely feel like I'm in a great place right now, training very hard," Smith said during his offseason conference call with Bears media. "I just feel like I have a lot that I have to live up to myself, my personal goals and then team goals and things of that nature, so I'm definitely just trying to make this year my best year possible, better than any of the other years I've had and just maximize myself because I know Year 3 is a huge year for myself and my career.
"So I've just got to make everything worth it and put it all on the line for myself and my teammates and my family."
One outside source for grading has been down on Smith's play all along.
While Bears fans generally love Smith's play so far, Pro Football Focus last season ranked Smith only 44th out of 58 off-ball linebackers who played regularly (500 snaps).
They gave him only a 52.4 grade on their scoring system in 2019. The previous season he had been at a respectable 64.2. They've given him his worst marks against the pass.
How legitimate were their grades?
NFL official stat partner Sportradar tracked Smith and gave him a better passer rating against when targeted last season than in his rookie year, 75.9 to 95.9. It wasn't even close, yet PFF had him graded worse last year.
Sportradar also gave him a better passer completion percentage allowed when targeted last year, 67.2%. It was 73.2% in 2018.
In another key aspect, Smith missed only on four out of 105 tackle attempts last year, or only 3.8%. That was best among the Bears' four linebackers who started games last year and far better than 9.7% as a rookie.
The difference here is Sportradar numbers represent only what did or did not happen.
The PFF grade is based on what their evaluators think he should have done within what they think is his job duty. Opinion enters into it.
Then again, how Smith actually does grade out at Halas Hall really is a matter of opinion—by the coaches.
They keep saying he's playing well. They've said it about other players.
So Smith this season would be well advised to pick up his game and start producing more significant plays, or risk being lumped into the Mitchell Trubisky category.
Roquan Smith at a Glance
Key Number: In Smith's first five games last year he averaged 7.8 tackles and 0.2 tackles for loss. In his final six full games he averaged 9.9 tackles and 0.67 tackles for loss.
2020 Projection: 130 tackles, 7 for loss, 2 interceptions, two forced fumbles.