Depending on who you ask, one might be surprised to hear that on the NFL's best defense -- one with 4 All-Pros -- the leading tackler was rookie Roquan Smith.
Smith, who was the Bears' first-round pick in 2018 and whose contract-holdout was the hot topic of preseason, led the team in both combined (120) and solo (89) tackles. While there's a dark corner of Bears fans who weren't happy with Smith's 2018 (and kind of aren't happy about anything ever), the 8th overall pick out of Georgia's first season was subjectively a success.
"You know, you talk to Roquan and you can just feel him, no different than any player, just feeling comfortable in the defense," GM Ryan Pace said. "So now he's not thinking as much, he's just playing with his instincts, and he's playing fast. And you guys know Roquan. Those are his greatest strengths - his instincts and his speed. So the sky's the limit for him."
"It's just exciting to see him grow. And I think you saw a glimpse of what he's going to be, especially in the later part of the season."
Smith may be the headliner, but don't let that undercut how productive the rest of the group was. James Daniels, Anthony Miller, and Bilal Nichols each had their moments throughout the year, showing off what looks like back-to-back stellar draft classes in Pace/Nagy era. In fact, Smith, Daniels and Nichols all made ESPN's All-Rookie team.
"I like [the group] a lot," Matt Nagy added. "The guys that we brought in, we were talking about it a few weeks ago -- you never know how many you're going to hit on. And so and I don't know if we even truly know right now, but from what we've seen we feel really confident with that group, see a lot of high ceiling with these guys."
Daniels, taken in the 2nd round out of Iowa, appeared in 16 games this season and was a starter in the final 10. He didn't allow a single sack all season, and according to Pro Football Focus, only allowed 20 total pressures on his 432 pass-blocking attempts. His work against Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald may be one of the more impressive performances from any Bears player on the roster all year.
"That was one of the biggest challenges that he’s ever going to have," Nagy said the morning after the Bears' 15-6 win. "I thought his technique was really good last night. He never lunged too much, he stayed balanced. One of James’ biggest strengths is if he happens to lose a little leverage he can recover, but for the most part he was very consistent. And man, for being such a young kid, very calm, composed and that was one of the big things we talked about as a team was to stay calm and composed and next play mentality, he did that."
For Miller, who came out of Memphis with a whole bunch of Antonio Brown comparisons, being stashed behind Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton didn't stop the rookie from scoring seven touchdowns, the most for a Bears' rookie since 1983. For the year, Miller hauled in 33 receptions for 423 yards, averaging out at 12.8 yards per reception. If you don't count Kevin White and his four receptions, Miller's 12.8 YPR was good for 3rd best on the team. He also showed a commendable amount of toughness, battling through most of the season with a left shoulder that popped out on multiple occasions and will eventually need surgery. It's also worth noting that Miller is already well-liked inside of Halas Hall - it's not a coincidence that he was one of the first people Allen Robinson named when asked why someone would want to join the Bears in free agency.
As for Nichols, the rookie out of Delaware started six games and appeared in 14 and played well next to Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. He put up three sacks, two forced fumbles and 28 tackles, five of which were for a loss. Like Smith and Daniels, Nichols was consistently lauded for having a maturity beyond his age.
"We’ve got some mature rookies," linemate Akiem Hicks said. "I noticed that from OTAs and off the top of my head, Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols, just knowing their role and their place and trying to meet every expectation of themselves and from their peers and coaching staff and just knowing that there’s a lot to lose whenever you step on the field. They take advantage of it and so as a veteran player you look at that and you say, ‘We’ve got a great nucleus here, something that can propel us forward into the playoffs and so look at us now.'"
The other three members of the 2018 class had quieter opening acts, though reasons to be optimistic remain. Javon Wimms put on a clinic in preseason and may be one of the more exciting Breakout Season candidates come next August. Kylie Fitts appeared in six games this season and fits well with what you need in a linebacker in 2019. Joel Iyiegbuniwe was a strong contributor to special teams over 16 games.
The list of the players drafted during Pace's tenure now includes (but isn't limited to): Mitch Trubisky, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Smith, Daniels, Miller, and Nichols. In other words, their starting QB, safety, running back, inside linebacker, offensive guard and defensive tackle. So what's behind such successful drafts?
"I think that it's just a credit to these guys, Ryan and his guys," Nagy added. "They put in a lot of hard work and we collaborate together. And when you do that and you get guys that believe in everything, that's what happens."
"If we could go back and do it again, I'd do it again."
Hard to blame him.