Matt Nagy was thrilled that first-round draft pick Roquan Smith finally signed on the dotted line Tuesday, but the Bears coach knows that the hard work is just beginning.
Smith rejoined his teammates after missing four weeks of training camp and two preseason games during a 29-day holdout. The inside linebacker from Georgia arrived in time Tuesday to participate in a walkthrough practice and travel with the Bears to Denver.
"I was happy," Nagy said. "It helps us out. We've told you from the beginning that it was going to be a process. It's a key draft pick for us, but at the same time he knows that he has a lot of catching up to do mentally and physically, so that's the biggest challenge."
Smith will begin to tackle that challenge this week in Denver. The Bears are scheduled to conduct joint practices with the Broncos Wednesday and Thursday before the two teams meet in a preseason game Saturday night at Broncos Stadium at Mile High.
Tuesday's 90-minute walkthrough didn't provide enough of a test to gauge Smith's fitness level or endurance, so the rookie linebacker will be closely monitored in practice in Denver.
"Rep-wise you put him in for a few, maybe take him out, put him back in and then you've got to get a gauge on how he's handling it," Nagy said. "Is he out of shape with his breath? Are his legs tired? You'll see it right away. He's going to have fresh legs. He's going to look a little faster than everybody else. So you gauge it, and once you see where he's at, then you can either put him in more or pull back."
Nagy will meet with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio later in the week to determine how much if at all Smith will play in Saturday night's preseason game.
"We'll get together the next day-and-a-half, two days in Denver," Nagy said. "We'll see where he's at and then we'll evaluate that probably towards the end of the week."
While the Bears may ease Smith back into action from a physical standpoint, they will not hold back in terms of challenging him mentally. For instance, he will continue to relay calls to the defense, just like he did during offseason workouts.
"We'll still ask him to do all that because you've got to test the waters a little bit and see what he can and can't do," Nagy said. "If you take too many baby steps and you don't test him enough then you don't know what his limit is. I think you go ahead and you throw stuff at him. We have to make sure physically you don't overdo it. Mentally, he's fine."
Because Smith is responsible for calling the defensive plays, Nagy acknowledged that the rookie has more catching up to do than he would if he played a different position.
"That middle linebacker spot is a spot that has a lot of calls," Nagy said. "It's one thing to be able to be in your books and see it and see it on video. It's another thing to be out there on the field and doing it. Because he plays that position, there might be a little more catching up to do than per se a corner or somewhere else."
It's far too early to speculate about whether Smith will be able to play or how effective he'd be in the regular-season opener Sept. 9 in Green Bay.
"Maybe in a week, week-and-a-half I can answer that," Nagy said. "I don't know right now. I've seen him out here with no pads on for an hour-and-a-half. I'll be able to stay in touch with Vic. We'll see how that goes, and obviously you hope so, right?
"That's one of the benefits of him being here now. But we just have to see, and I don't think it's fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day. Again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.
With that being said, the Bears are fully confident that Smith will be able to make up for the time he missed and develop into the player they envisioned when he was selected with the eighth pick in the draft.
"From the time that we got to know Roquan in OTAs, we understand that he's a very driven individual both on and off the field, and I know he's going to do everything he possibly can to catch up," Nagy said. "Now he's got to be able to get out here in Denver and have some good practices. It's a great time for him. It's good for him to get back in shape and take some hits, go ahead and see where he's at physically with his body, and we'll just kind of gauge it as we go."