Bears

Bears' Roquan Smith among PFF's top newcomers for 2018

Bears' Roquan Smith among PFF's top newcomers for 2018

First-round picks are supposed to make a significant impact as rookies. That's why they're first-rounders. It's no exception for Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith.

Smith, 21, will start alongside Danny Trevathan after a career at Georgia that resulted in numerous awards and accolades, most notably the 2017 Dick Butkus Award given to the nation's top collegiate linebacker. Now, Smith has to live up to the standard set by Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher for a franchise that loves its linebackers like other fan bases value quarterbacks.

According to Pro Football Focus, Smith will check all the boxes in 2018. He was recently named to their list of 20 newcomers expected to make the biggest impact this season.

Smith, a standout in Athens with Georgia a year ago, possesses the elite athleticism, range and speed to excel as a three-down linebacker in today’s pass-happy NFL. In addition to his 86.1 run-defense grade, Smith earned an elite 90.6 coverage grade in 2017.

Assuming Chicago's pass rush comes together, Vic Fangio's defense has a chance to be one of the best all-around units in the NFL this season. All three levels of the defense have talent, ranging from Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman on the defensive line, Leonard Floyd rushing the passer, Kyle Fuller locking down receivers, and Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos striking fear into opposing quarterbacks and receivers. Smith and Trevathan will man the second level and are as talented of a linebacker tandem as there is in the league.

Rarely is a first-round pick met with such confidence as Smith has been with the Bears. Hype is dangerous, but with Smith, the risk of him becoming a bust is extremely low.

Eddie Jackson’s pitch for the Bears hits home with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘It’s just like Bama’

Eddie Jackson’s pitch for the Bears hits home with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘It’s just like Bama’

Six years ago, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix recruited a three-star wide receiver recruit named Eddie Jackson to play his college ball at Alabama (Jackson, of course, played for Nick Saban as a safety). In March, it was Jackson who was recruiting Clinton-Dix, this time to play for the Bears. 

He did so with a simple message: “It’s just like ‘Bama.”

And from there, “I was ready to sign,” Clinton-Dix said. 

The friendship between Jackson and Clinton-Dix developed in Tuscaloosa and continued after Clinton-Dix became a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2014. But Clinton-Dix didn’t decide to sign with the Bears — on a cheap one-year prove-it deal — just because of the opportunity to team up with one of his friends. 

Jackson and quarterback Mitch Trubisky chatted with Clinton-Dix on his visit to Halas Hall back in March and offered another critical pitch centered around coach Matt Nagy. 

“I told him coach Nagy is one of those coaches, he lets us be us, go out there and have fun with swag,” Jackson said. “But he knew it. He was like man, I know, I’m a fan of y’all, I’ve been watching. He was on board.”

Jackson and Clinton-Dix combined for 14 interceptions since the beginning of the 2017 season, though Clinton-Dix left the Green Bay Packers via a midseason trade last year with a reputation for missing tackles (for what it’s worth, Clinton-Dix missed one fewer tackle than Adrian Amos did in 2018, per Pro Football Focus). The Bears see Clinton-Dix’s one-year deal as a win-win for all parties: The Bears get a starting safety with proven past production and playoff experience, while Clinton-Dix slides into one of the league’s most talented defenses with an excellent opportunity to rebuild his value on the free agent market in 2020. 

“I always like to focus on the positives guys have,” safeties coach Sean Desai said. “He’s shown that he’s a highly instinctual player, he’s shown that he’s got good ball skills and good range and those are traits that we’re going to develop.” 

Jackson and Amos forged a strong relationship on the back end of the Bears’ defense the last two years, with good communication between the two helping accentuate each player’s strengths. A thought here is replacing Amos with Clinton-Dix will help ease the transition for Jackson, given his friendship with his new safety mate. But there’s more that goes into a good safety pairing than a strong friendship. 

“They gotta build that communication,” Desai said. “It’s different to speak a personal language off the field and then a football language on the field. So that’s what we’re all building.”

Still, a good off-the-field relationship with Jackson got Clinton-Dix in the door at Halas Hall. And the Bears hope it can be an important part of the league’s best defense in 2018 holding on to that title in 2019. 

“I’m just glad to be on the back end with him, man,” Clinton-Dix said. “This is a special defense and I’m glad to be a part of these guys.” 

Reworking his fundamentals might be the key to unlocking Leonard Floyd's potential

Reworking his fundamentals might be the key to unlocking Leonard Floyd's potential

If new outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino was looking to make a strong impression during his first media availability on Wednesday afternoon, he certainly hit his mark. 

“I think Leonard [Floyd] as a pure, natural pass-rusher has a bigger tool box than anybody else I’m coaching right now,” Monachino said. “I want everybody to understand what I just said. The better rusher right now is [Khalil Mack] but the natural pass-rush ability, the pass-rush gene? 94 has it.” 

Comparisons to Mack aside, it’s easy to see Monachino’s point. Since being drafted out of the University of Georgia 9th overall in 2016, coaches in Halas Hall have spoken with a sense of wonder about Floyd’s athleticism. He did, after all, have the 5th-best 40-time (4.60) among OLBs at the 2016 combine. Not to mention the 3rd-best broad jump (10’7”). And the 2nd-best vertical jump (39.5). 

“His length and his explosiveness in a short space, those things negate all other disadvantages,” Monachino added. “As a power rusher at the top of the pocket, I don’t think he’s going to have any problem. I don’t think he’s ever been groomed that way.” 

OTAs are about as laid back as team-sanctioned activities get in the NFL; it’s slow-paced and conceptual by nature. Basically, it’s the perfect environment for a player who’s looking to strengthen fundamentals. For every Floyd conversation that’s started with his raw athleticism, there’s one that’s ended with his lack of production. 

“I’ve been focusing on getting better at what I’ve been bad at last year, so I’ve just been grinding,” Floyd said. “I just wanted to just really get back and learn the fundamentals. I’ve just been practicing them and trying to elevate my game.

“It’ll help me when we start in Training Camp. Just really working on my hands, playing with good technique, and learning the new defense. I’m trying to elevate myself by learning as much as I can about that.” 

It’s important to note that injuries have played a major role, as he’s missed time in each season with a concussion (2016), MCL tear (2017), and hand fracture (2018). Still, Floyd has yet to record more than 7 sacks, and that came in his rookie season. Since then, he’s had 4 and 4.5. 

“I think the sacks will come...” Monachino said. “... As he gets better at one or two things, his numbers will go up. The thing that may happen first are the effective rushes. He may affect the quarterback, he may affect the launch point, he may move a guy off the spot. The more those come on, the more productive rushes he’s going to have.” 

The Bears are banking on Floyd finding those effective rushes, quite literally. At their end-of-season press conference, GM Ryan Pace announced that they intended to pick up Floyd’s 5th-year option in 2020. They officially did so in March, and are now on the hook for for paying him $13.2 million that year. Good pass rushing doesn’t come cheap, but the Bears will be expecting more out of Floyd from here on out. He’s certainly expecting it out of himself. 

“It’s exciting, me and coach were talking about it,” he said, when asked about getting closer to his ceiling this season. “ I’ve just got to come in every day and keep working hard and it’ll payoff. So I’m coming in every day focused and trying to help the team.”