Roquan Smith was supposed to emerge as one of the top young linebackers in the NFL in 2019. Instead, his season was marred by a bizarre deactivation against the Vikings in September and an all-around down year.
Still, the Bears haven't wavered in their belief in Smith, who was the team's first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He's one of the club's most important draft picks entering the 2020 season and one of just two first-rounders who remain on the roster from the Ryan Pace era. Mitch Trubisky is the other.
Smith has to deliver this season especially after Pace prioritized re-signing Danny Trevathan over Nick Kwiatkoski, who was arguably the team's best young linebacker in 2019. As a result, Smith was recently named the Bears' key homegrown player this year.
Bears fans love Roquan Smith. Bears coaches love Roquan Smith. Bears teammates love Roquan Smith. PFF does not love Roquan Smith. Smith ranked 44th among 58 off-ball linebackers who played at least 500 snaps last season. The eye test isn't thrilling, either. He gets washed out of running plays too often. His expected strength entering the league was in pass coverage, but he hasn't stood out there, either, sometimes getting taken off the field. There is value in a heady defensive signal-caller whom numbers can't fully evaluate, but there just haven't been the impact plays expected from a top-10 pick. Perhaps this is the year Smith earns all that love.
Smith finished 2019 with a 52.4 season grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 24th among Bears defenders. It was a significant regression from his rookie-season grade of 67.4. He was especially bad against the pass, where his coverage grade dropped from 72.7 to 55.4 and his pass-rush grade dropped from 70.9 to 51.5.
The Bears need Smith to realize his full potential in order for the defense to be the elite quarterback-wrecking group it's capable of.
It's really hard to find one quality starting offensive tackle in the NFL, let alone two. Whether either of the Bears' starting tackles qualifies as a quality player is up for debate, but both Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie are, at the very least, competent starters in the league.
According to the analytics team at Pro Football Focus, neither Leno nor Massie ranks as a top-25 player at their position, however. Both Bears starters were left off of PFF's new list of the game's 25 best blindside protectors, one that included Giants rookie first-round pick, Andrew Thomas.
Massie was the Bears' 11th highest-graded player on offense in 2020, finishing the season with a 63.2 grade from PFF. It was the worst season score Massie's received in his career. As for Leno, he finished 2019 with a 58.6, which was his worst mark since his rookie season (53.6).
Massie was PFF's 65th overall tackle last year, while Leno was 87th. It's easy to see why they were left off the list.
The NFC North wasn't entirely blanked. David Bakhtiari (Packers) ranked third overall, while Taylor Decker (Lions) was 23rd.
Looks can often be deceiving, but in the case of Bears left guard James Daniels, his physical transformation this offseason has him looking like a player ready to breakout.
Check it out:
Daniels will enter his third season in the league after being a second-round pick out of Iowa in 2018. Originally pegged as a center, Daniels has settled in at guard while Cody Whitehair returned to his best fit in the middle of the o-line.
Daniels owned the Bears' third-highest grade on offense from Pro Football Focus in 2019 (69.9) after logging 508 snaps at center and 561 at guard. His switch to left guard occurred in Week 10 and his uptick in performance was obvious.
Chicago will have one new starter upfront this year, with Germain Ifedi expected to take hold of the right guard job. He should be a fine replacement for Kyle Long (and Rashaad Coward), but it's Daniels who has a chance to emerge as the Bears' best offensive lineman if his physical condition is any indication of the year that's in store.