Pro Bowl voting started this week. Linebacker Roquan Smith made an excellent argument for his first career selection.
Smith recorded 14 total tackles against the Minnesota Vikings, with three tackles-for-loss and a sack. Smith is in the middle of his most productive season to date, having played on every defensive snap save two plays in the opener against the Detroit Lions.
Smith leads the NFL in tackles with 94 and tackles-for-loss with 15. However, his most significant leap forward as a player won't show up in a box score. Smith has taken over the green dot, a sticker on his helmet marking him as the defensive player in radio communication with his coaches.
The additional responsibility has been three years in the making for Smith, whose leadership and football intelligence were cited as defining skills when the Bears selected him with the eighth pick in the 2018 draft.
"I think when he got the green dot," said inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone, "he was ready for it. Sometimes you have to grow into that role and he's done an amazing job of taking that responsibility and running with it. I'm really, really proud of the way he's done that because he is young, but he's growing, and he's maturing all the time."
The elevation in status can be viewed as a reward for Smith's improvement or its cause. DeLeone believes that Smith has taken his leadership role seriously, which has spurred him to prepare and play harder.
"I think Ro, this year when he got the green dot," said DeLeone, "and his maturity and growth this season where he's taken that, he's taken a lot of pride in that. And he takes a lot of pride in that every single day in practice and on Sundays. He's done a great job of doing that and getting those guys lined up."
Smith took over the green dot from Danny Trevathan, who has served as a veteran example for Smith the past three seasons. Smith and Trevathan are known for their relentless preparation during the week.
"Danny and him, they live on their iPads," said DeLeone. "When they're not in the building, they're watching film. When you get that, you study the footwork of the back and see the line and see that triangle and be able to diagnose the play and play fast and attack and have no fear."
Smith's growth is felt by other position groups. Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers credits Smith for maintaining strong communication with his unit.
"Roquan is a really, really smart football player," said Rodgers, "and sometimes he'll even point out where the ball is going. So all of that stuff matters, and when the linebackers and defensive line are on the same page, then you see positive results."
DeLeone stressed that Smith's playmaking ability is a crucial part of his leadership. DeLeone drew attention to Smith's ability to mitigate bad plays, including instances where he recovers from a blitz attempt to make the tackle downfield.
"He makes plays in every game that amaze me," said DeLeone. "I don't know if it surprises me, but they amaze me. Sometimes his best plays that he makes aren't necessarily the TFLs or the ones that are on the highlight reels."
While Smith hasn't been perfect, his reaction to mistakes has tended to erase negative plays.
"He's got a short memory," said DeLeone. "He missed a tackle in the game the other night. I think he's got the fewest missed tackles in the league, but he missed one the other night. The next play, he made the play. He doesn't let one bad play lead to another."
Over the summer, defensive coaches hinted that Smith had come back determined to make up for a slightly disappointing 2019. Through 10 games, that assessment appears to be accurate.
"Every single play, he plays angry," said DeLeone. "He plays like he's got a chip on his shoulder. I think he wants to be great. When you have a player like that who wants to be great, he finds ways to motivate himself."