The following is the third of nine stories featuring an ascending young Bears player heading into the 2021 season:
Roquan Smith, inside linebacker
How he was acquired
The Bears selected Smith with the eighth pick in the first round of the 2018 draft out of Georgia. They viewed him as a speedy and tenacious sideline-to-sideline three-down inside linebacker who excels against the run as well as in pass coverage.
In his final year at Georgia, Smith was voted first-team All-American, won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award, both of which are presented to the country's best defensive player.
"To come away with one of the top defensive players in the draft, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus Award winner, we're fired up," general manager Ryan Pace said the night the Bears picked Smith. "The whole draft room's excited. The whole building's excited."
In his final year in college, Smith helped Georgia reach the CFP national championship game, starting all 15 games and leading the Bulldogs with 137 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 14.0 tackles-for-loss and 20 quarterback hits. He was named MVP of the SEC Championship Game and Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl in the CFP semifinal.
"The first thing that comes to mind is his instincts, his play speed and his physicality," Pace said. "I mean, he hits with impact. Those are things that jump out. Every game you watch, he's just so explosive. This guy's flying around, making plays. In today's NFL, the linebackers are becoming more and more of this. Sometimes you might sacrifice a little bit of size to gain a lot of athleticism and a lot of speed, and Roquan definitely has that."
Prior to 2020 season
Smith made an immediate impact as a rookie, registering a sack on his first NFL play. He led the Bears with 121 tackles in 2018, three shy of Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher's franchise rookie record set in 2000. Smith also registered five sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, one interception and five pass breakups while playing in all 16 games with 15 starts. He added a second interception in the Bears' wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles and was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
"It was huge to watch him just kind of flourish, especially in the late part of the year," Pace said. "The sky's the limit for him. It's just exciting to see him grow. I think you saw a glimpse of what he's going to be, especially in the later part of the season."
Smith picked up in 2019 where he left off in 2018, but sustained a season-ending pectoral injury in a Week 14 win over the Cowboys. Despite missing the final three games, he still led the Bears with 100 tackles.
Smith had been playing his best football of the season before suffering the injury, recording at least 10 tackles in four of five contests, including a career-high 16 stops in a Thanksgiving win in Detroit. Smith also compiled two sacks and two tackles-for-loss against the Lions, becoming only the third player in NFL history with at least 15 tackles and two sacks in a game.
"I really thought that you felt him, especially here in the last several games, really turn it on, really playing fast," coach Matt Nagy said at the time. "He's always had that. Every play that he gets, every game that he plays for the rest of his career, he's only going to get better and better."
Bears teammates and coaches predicted that Smith would have a breakout season in 2020, and he did not disappoint. The Georgia product finished seventh in the NFL with a career-high and team-leading 139 tackles, second with 96 solo tackles and second with 18 tackles-for-loss—the most TFLs by a Bears player since Urlacher had 19 in 2002.
Smith was the only NFL player to record at least 100 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He picked off two passes in a Week 16 win over the Jaguars, becoming the first Bears linebacker with two interceptions in a game since Lance Briggs in 2008 and the only NFL linebacker to accomplish that feat in 2020.
Smith also fueled the Bears' three-game winning streak late in the season. He generated 14 tackles, one sack and three tackles-for-loss against the Vikings; 12 tackles, two sacks and two tackles-for-loss versus the Texans; and the aforementioned two interceptions against the Jaguars.
"This guy prepares and practices just like that dude, 52," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said late in the season, comparing Smith to former Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who Pagano coached when he served as a Baltimore assistant from 2008-11.
"He's playing at a really high level and he's been really consistent. I can just see his play getting better and better and better every single week. He goes out and he has dominant performances.
"Like a fine wine, he's getting better with age. He's not an Opus One yet, another near that. Maybe a Duckhorn, a Cakebread. He's moving up the ladder of Northern California/Napa Valley, really nice Cab. He's locked in and he's so focused right now. He just wants to do great things for his teammates. He's a selfless dude."
Smith injured his elbow in the Bears' regular season finale against the Packers and was unable to play on Super Wild Card Weekend versus the Saints. But given his emergence as a star defender and the fact that he's still only 23, he has an incredibly bright future.