When the Bears selected linebacker Roquan Smith with the eighth pick in the 2018 draft, the decision was met with near-universal praise.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. predicted that Smith would become the Bears' defensive leader, calling him "one of the best tacklers to come out of college in the past decade."
General manager Ryan Pace said Smith was "everything you're looking for as a player" and praised Smith's intangibles.
Two seasons in, the excitement has mostly been justified. Smith stepped into a starting role after missing training camp as a rookie and led one of the league's top defenses with 121 tackles. Smith also notched five sacks.
Now, entering his third season with the Bears, Smith is again attracting bold predictions.
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said that Smith was primed to have his best season yet, citing offseason study sessions over Zoom. Inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone praised Smith for his offseason workout regimen.
"He's in really good shape right now," said DeLeone. "He's cut up. He has put on some lean body mass. But good weight. He looks the part right now. He does. He's physically ready."
Smith suffered a pectoral injury during last season's Week 14 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. Despite playing in only 12 games, he still led the Bears in tackles for the second consecutive season. Smith said that he is at "100 percent" after offseason rehab and believes his attitude is what is prompting the praise from the coaching staff.
"I just have a chip on my shoulder," said Smith, "so it's just more so myself knowing what I need to do to make myself the best possible player I need to be. So regardless if that's coming in each and every day ... busting my tail and really not taking no for an answer and just doing whatever it takes."
Smith said that he entered training camp at 234 pounds, a slight increase from his 2019 listed weight of 230. Smith anticipates that he will lose some of his gains during training camp. However, both Pagano and DeLeone emphasized that Smith has put on the right kind of weight.
"I think sometimes we forget that he's 23 years old," said DeLeone. "He's a young kid who is growing and maturing and is growing into his body still. You know what I mean? I don't think it wasn't like I had a conversation with him about his shape. I just think that he is, through the rehab that he was doing, he has just pushed his body to another level."
Smith said that he believes his body transformation will help him find the next level as he continues to handle the middle of the field next to veteran Danny Trevathan. While Smith avoided making a specific prediction about his performance, he did offer Bears fans a reason to be optimistic.
"I'm very excited," said Smith. "I feel great physically, mentally, I feel like I'm very excited for this year. I'm very excited for this season, in particular, to show the world what I can do. It should be a fun one."