Why Roquan Smith will be critical for the Bears repeating as the NFL's best defense

USA Today

Why Roquan Smith will be critical for the Bears repeating as the NFL's best defense

It’ll be difficult for the Bears’ defense to sustain the mesmerizing level of success it had in 2018. But difficult does not mean impossible. 

And Roquan Smith could be one of the key reasons why the Bears’ defense doesn’t experience a significant regression, if a regression at all. 

“I think there are guys that have a feel, a natural feel. Roquan’s definitely one of those guys,” inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. 

Smith is a natural at his inside linebacker perch, a guy who can blend instincts with speed with physicality — all the traits teams crave in an off-ball linebacker. What Smith lacked as a rookie was experience: Specifically, experience practicing in training camp. He barely participated in practices last July and August due to a lengthy holdout and then an injury suffered shortly after signing his contract.

And yet, Smith still totaled 121 tackles, five sacks, one interception, four pass break-ups and eight tackles for a loss. So the Bears enter 2019 confident Smith can take a significant step forward with the benefit of a full year of playing experience — and a full offseason of practice. 

“He plays very fast,” DeLeone said. “I think he’s unbelievable at seeing it pre-snap, understanding formations, understanding splits, mastering his technique and then playing fast after the ball is snapped.”

These ongoing OTA practices have been DeLeone’s first up-close look at how Smith moves with a ball on the field, though he spent time scouting him while serving as the Kansas City Chiefs’ inside linebackers coach last year (prior to that, DeLeone was on Andy Reid’s staff in a variety of roles beginning from 2013-2017). 

It’s far too early for anyone on the Bears’ new defensive coaching staff to project how a player could be used in the regular season, though Smith’s knack for pass rushing should be of some use in Chuck Pagano’s more blitz-heavy scheme. 

The transition to that new defense, too, hasn’t phased Smith. 

“There are only so many things you can do on defense, so it’s not like he can create an entire new ball or whatever,” Smith said. “Ball is ball.”

Pagano’s evaluation of Smith, too, backed up that comfort conveyed by the former eighth overall pick: “The guy doesn’t make mistakes,” Pagano said. 

It’s certainly encouraging that the NFL’s reigning top defense has a former top-10 pick entering his second year as a pro. Those are the kind of players who can help sustain success for quite a long time. 

And so far, this coaching staff’s first impression of Smith hasn’t done anything to diminish that optimistic thought. 

“(If) he just keeps playing that way, we’re going to be in good shape,” DeLeone said of what he’s seen from Smith so far. “He’s a really, really good player. I love watching him play, I love the energy he brings to practice every day. He’s just a joy to coach.”  

Kevin White's NFL career was an 'every day battle, mentally and physically'

Kevin White's NFL career was an 'every day battle, mentally and physically'

Many Bears fans already know the toll that Kevin White's injuries took on him physically. Leg breaks, hamstring tears, and shoulder fractures all contributed mightily to White's underwhelming time in Chicago, but the lesser known side of things centers on the emotional toll those injuries took. Talking with our Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz, White went into detail about what it was like for him to be living through that: 

It was hard. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. It was hard because I love the game so much and want to be great so bad and did the right things, be a good person — forget about football, I try to be a super good person. And it was just like oh my gosh, when am I going to get my chance or my turn? Or when am I going to be like, oh my gosh I got through it and now I’m with this team or got this contract and I was able to score the winning touchdown or whatever. So I just kept thinking that’s gonna come, it’s gonna come, it has to happen. Just stay the course, keep fighting, keep battling. You got the talent, just stay healthy so we can show it. So that’s what every day kept me going.

... Like, you don’t understand what that player has to go through day in, day out. Even sleeping, it’s hard to sleep because your mind is like, I’m ready to play, I wanna go. Your body is like, no shot. So you gotta sleep on that. Then you get kind of bored, or sometimes you know what the media’s saying, fans are saying, it kind of gets you like, I’m gonna go out there and run a route. I want to be able to do it right now. Like I want to be able to do it now. So you gotta be able to deal with that mentally. Physically, your body’s not ready, so you gotta do treatment and extra things every single day. You don’t just go in for treatment from 9 to 11 and then you’re done for the day. That’s not it. It’s an every day battle, mentally and physically. 

It's fascinating – not to mention a bit heartbreaking – to get such a first-hand account of what failure in the NFL feels like. You can listen to the entire interview on the latest episode of the Under Center Podcast: 

NFL head coaches can reportedly return to team facilities next week

NFL head coaches can reportedly return to team facilities next week

No one steals thunder quite like the NFL. 

On a day when the NHL is planning to publicly announce how their season will return, it's being reported that the NFL may take a significant step towards their own reopening – and soon. 

Yahoo Sports' NFL columnist Charles Robinson is reporting that NFL coaches may return to team facilities as early as next week, and the league has its eyes on OTAs in mid-to-late June:

The sources told Yahoo Sports that if coaches resume their in-house work next week, minicamps including players could be scheduled as early as June 15 or as late as June 27, depending on COVID-19 data and whether a handful of franchises get a “go ahead” signal from state governments to resume full operations. Resuming full operations and getting a minicamp scheduled would represent the league's biggest step to date toward keeping the 2020 NFL season on track for a regularly scheduled fall kickoff.

Robinson's source adds that 'June 15 and June 27 are the dates that have been identified as potential full-squad minicamp windows,' and the 'key hurdle' is the timeline in which California governor Gavin Newsom begins to reopen the state. Newsom has already expressed a willingness to have professional sports team return under strict and specific guidelines. 

The news is a good sign for the return of the NFL on a normal schedule – a reality that's looked increasingly likely over the past couple weeks.