Bears

Roquan Smith holdout undermining his Bears season or future? History says otherwise

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USA TODAY

Roquan Smith holdout undermining his Bears season or future? History says otherwise

Could the Bears have used linebacker Roquan Smith against the Cincinnati Bengals during a first quarter that likely would’ve been the outer limit of his playing time in preseason Game 2? Obviously. John Timu was beaten badly, and Nick Kwiatkoski was not a factor early. Which says that the Bears could also have been well served to have Danny Trevathan available as well. All moot, with Trevathan working back from a pre-camp hamstring issue, and Smith and the Bears in negotiations best described at this point as stagnant.

But as the Smith non-contract drama lurches along, dire predictions and assessments of the holdout are inevitable. They’re also meaningless and, in some instances, flat wrong.

The fact is that missing a significant portion of training camp and preseason projects to have little to no effect on what Smith, the No. 8 pick of the 2018 first round, will become in the course of what he and the Bears hope will be a long and distinguished career. Even in the course of his rookie season.

The “evidence” is two-fold.

On-time = success? No correlation.

One is that while being in camp and preseason games obviously provide the first-stage launch of a rookie season, it is of questionable correlation to success in that season.

Forget about the current popular case-study, San Diego defensive end Joey Bosa. Consider instead that most of the greatest players in recent Bears history didn’t hold out, and neither did they start their rookie seasons anyway. Cases will be made for their nominations to the Hall of Fame, where Brian Urlacher will be waiting, the same Brian Urlacher who didn’t start his rookie season until an injury turned Barry Minter into a Bears Wally Pipp.

Olin Kreutz – started one game in his ’98 rookie year.

Lance Briggs – didn’t start until Game 4, backed up Bryan Knight for three games.

Charles Tillman – best CB in Bears history couldn’t beat out Jerry Azumah til Week 4.

And so on… .

Holding-out = problems? Again, no correlation long-term

On the other hand, the failed Bears careers of Cedric Benson, Curtis Enis and Cade McNown are cited as how holdouts can derail careers.

Bad examples.

Benson

The running back out of Texas was the last signee from the 2005 draft class, missing 36 days of camp and never reaching launch velocity his rookie season. He did average 4.1 yards per carry that year and the next, and had Lovie Smith holding the starter’s door open for him, although only so far.

The problem that dogged Benson ultimately was not his holdout, but his character and admittedly quirky personality. He clashed with Thomas Jones, a favorite in the locker room but who was understandably threatened by the selection of Benson at No. 4.

Benson had hamstring issues and a shoulder injury in the ’06 camp. But both the Bears and Bengals cut ties with him after repeated off-field incidents.

Enis

The non-career of Enis is wrongly cited as a casualty of his holdout. Not exactly.

The year before McNown, Enis had missed 26 days and two preseason games while his novice agent posed wildly bizarre contract scenarios for the Bears. Enis arrived in camp and was greeted with an impromptu bull-in-the-ring session to start his first practice, against notoriously tough linebacker Rico McDonald. Enis left the encounter with his head, but not his helmet.

Enis was not in football shape early, wasn’t available at certain key points in the early games of ’98, and earned the ire of coaches, particularly running backs coach Joe Brodsky, for disdaining blocking assignments, and Brodsky refused to play Enis until he was both in shape and with the program.

The light finally came on with Enis, and he was the workhorse back by midseason, breaking out for 76 yards on 18 carries and catching 2 passes in Game 9. He was then given his first NFL start the following week and piled up 85 yards on 21 carries before suffering a torn ACL that effectively derailed his career just as it was getting on track at more than 4 yards per carry.

Enis’ holdout delayed his development. It had nothing to do with why his career flamed out.

McNown

McNown was 11 days late getting to training camp owing to a difference of opinion over whether he should be paid in line with what the 12th pick of a draft should get (the Bears’ position) or that his position – quarterback – commanded a premium (the position of agent Tom Condon). McNown himself felt that he needed to hold firm to his position as a statement to the organization.

“I’m supposed to be the leader of the team,” McNown told this reporter at the time, “and what would they think of me if the first time things got tough, they knew I’d get pushed around.” So he stayed his course and the Bears came around to his thinking.

McNown set a couple of rookie passer records working within a unique one-series-per-game arrangement, then was installed as the starter in 2000. But he suffered a serious shoulder injury on a sideline hit in a Game 7 loss to Philadelphia at a point where his play was already spiraling down because of what teammates saw as a lack of commitment to learning the playbook.

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

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What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

DENVER — With Roquan Smith finally in tow, the Bears headed to Denver on Tuesday for a pair of joint practices with the Broncos leading up Saturday’s preseason game at Mile High Stadium. 

The Bears last held joint practices with the New England Patriots in 2016, and for coach Matt Nagy, this week will be his first experience with practicing with and against another team. For Bears players, the opportunity to practice against opposition — instead of their teammates, as has been the case for nearly a month — will inject some life into the dog days of the preseason. 

“It’s a great opportunity to compete against other guys and you get to go out there, and you’ve been beating on your guys all year long and all training camp long,” defensive end Akiem Hicks. “It’s an opportunity to have some other type of competition. And then to finish it up and play them at the end of the week, it just works well.”

Nagy said on Sunday he doesn’t anticipate Wednesday and Thursday’s practices will be live, and Broncos coach Vance Joseph said on Tuesday he spoke with Nagy about working to prevent the kind of fights that have popped up in some other joint practices this month. Washington and the Jets, most notably, had an all-out brawl earlier this week in a joint practice. 

“It’s always good the biggest thing when you do these team scrimmages together, you just want to stay away form the fights,” Nagy said. “As long as guys do that it’s definitely a benefit for both teams.”

The main benefit lies in the boost players should get from competing against another team's players instead of their teammates. That competitive jolt is beneficial, especially for a team that’s been practicing longer than anyone else besides the Baltimore Ravens thanks to participating in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 2. 

“It’s a different defensive scheme all week,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We are lucky to go against a great defense in practice, but it will be nice to go against someone else (with) different styles and different coverages.

“It’s going to be competition all week, so we definitely have to bring it. It will be a great week for us to get better and compete and see who wants to win every single snap — not just a game, not just practice periods, but every single snap, every single rep.”

For Smith, Wednesday and Thursday will be a head-first dive into the Bears’ defense. Even if coaches try to ease him into things — which won’t necessarily be the case — it will come against an offense not controlled by Nagy and Mark Helfrich. These two practices will be a good early test for where Smith is in terms of knowledge and football shape after his four-week holdout. 

And for the rest of the Bears, these two practices represent an opportunity to compete against someone different while breaking up the monotony of preseason practices. That’s generally a good thing — even if you’re, say, a tight end who all of a sudden has to try to block Von Miller. 

“I know they have some good edge guys,” tight end Adam Shaheen said with a bit of a grin. “… I think once we saw the schedule, all the tight ends were looking at those guys. it’ll be a good challenge and a good chance to get better.”

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), 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, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”