Now that the Bears and Roquan Smith’s Creative Artist Agency’s representatives are at long last on the verge of a contract agreement, as first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, the question becomes: How soon can the talented inside linebacker become the impact player that was expected when he was drafted eighth overall?
The terms of Smith’s four-year deal have yet to be announced, but it is expected to pay him a bit more than $18.5 million with as much as $12 million guaranteed. He was the last drafted player to agree to terms.
Smith was expected to start the season alongside seventh-year veteran Danny Trevathan at the ILB spots in the middle of the Bears’ defense. But Smith's holdout lasted the entire Bourbonnais portion of training camp, equaling 18 practices that the top pick missed.
“He’s missing out,” Trevathan said. “But he’s a smart player. I’m sure he’ll come back in, and I’ll help get him caught up, (or) whatever. I’ll let that handle itself right now. We’ll get him up to date.
“(But) there’s a lot of stuff you can’t get unless you’re out there on that field; that’s working with the guys next to you and communicating with the person that’s going to be in with you. He’s got some catching up to do, but we’ll get him caught up, it’s no problem.”
It is a problem for Smith, who has already missed practice time he can’t get back. He has less of a chance to make an impact early on, which is what the Bears were counting on when they added him to an already-strong defense that was No. 10 last year in yards allowed and No. 9 in points allowed. Coach Matt Nagy has repeatedly said that jobs must be won, and that means Smith still has to beat out third-year veteran ILB Nick Kwiatkoski, who has looked good running with the first team in every training-camp practice.
Nagy conceded Sunday following the Bears' final practice in Bourbonnais that Smith's Week 1 impact could be affected by his lengthy holdout.
"Yeah, I would say so,” Nagy said. “I think it does [limit him]. You’re playing at that (inside linebacker) position, and there are a lot of calls that go on. Very similar to a quarterback, there’s a lot going on. But I have full confidence in [defensive coordinator]Vic [Fangio] and his staff that when he does get here, they’ll get him up to speed, and whenever that is, we’ll see. That’s why we all get paid as coaches is to try to help our players out as much as possible, and that’s kind of where we’re at.”
But the Bears have not lost faith in their belief that Smith will be well worth the wait and could still be a major factor on the defense.
‘‘Obviously, he’s an extremely talented player,’’ GM Ryan Pace said when the Bears reported for the start of training camp on July 19. ‘‘But all the intangibles that he brings are also off the charts. So when we talk about identifying that guy that can potentially be that bell cow on defense, he has those type of traits.’’
Trevathan, as a team leader and someone who plays the same position as Smith, was in contact with the rookie during his absence.
“I’ve been talking to him, just making sure as a person he was all right, (that) he’s not fading away from the game that he loves,” Trevathan said in July 30. “I just make sure that he’s all right. I’ve been through some stuff. I’m pretty sure he wants to take care of himself, and he wants to get back in. I’m sure he’s missing (this) just as much as we are (missing him).”
One of the reasons for the delay in Smith’s arrival was debate over contract language that would ensure he doesn’t lose guaranteed money as the result of a potential suspension for violating the league’s new rule against initiating contact with the crown of the helmet. The Bears reportedly made concessions to protect Smith’s guaranteed money in that event, but Smith’s representatives wanted further guarantees against any kind of on-field discipline that could result in the loss of guaranteed money.
“That's part of the issue with it,” Nagy said on July 28. “As far as the details, I'm not going to get into all that right now, that wouldn't be fair to either party, but there's some of that to it. For both sides, it's more of a language-type deal.”
According to the new rule: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” The contact does not have to be helmet-to-helmet.
In addition to a 15-yard penalty, a foul for initiating contact with the helmet could also result in a player’s ejection, if the infraction is deemed to be egregious. That determination would be based on a judgment call after film review by game officials and/or replay officials in New York. A suspension would cost the offending player a game check (one-seventeenth of his salary) for every week he’s out.
When he last offered an update on Smith’s situation, Nagy preferred discussing the players who had been in camp.
“What we need to do is we need to focus on who's here right now, right?” Nagy said. “That's the realism of it all. There are valuable reps that are going on with our guys. We appreciate all that hard work and effort because we're shorter with numbers, but we just keep going forward. We worry about what we can control as a team, and we keep plugging away with what we have and who we have.”
One of those players who has been at every practice and made some notable contributions is Kwiatkoski, who intercepted a Mitch Trubisky pass during a recent practice, taking it back for a touchdown. The 2016 fourth-round pick is working alongside journeyman John Timu with the first team, as Trevathan only just returned July 30 from a hamstring injury, and even then he was limited.
Kwiatkoski started 13 games the previous two seasons when Trevathan and others were injured.