Can Roquan Smith be the next great Bears linebacker?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The NFL's charter franchise, the Chicago Bears are synonymous with Hall of Fame linebacker play.

The names conjure intensity and physicality and are part of the city's football fabric.

Butkus. Singletary. Urlacher.

The Bears made Roquan Smith the eighth overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft. He has yet to play a professional snap, but already the inevitable questions have surfaced: Is Smith ready to follow in those hallowed footsteps and be Chicago's next great linebacker?

"Just don't give Roquan too much pressure," Butkus said during a phone interview this week with ESPN. "Just let him play."

That's easier said than done.

For a football city desperate to return to relevance -- the Bears haven't qualified for the playoffs since 2010 -- Smith represents to many the final piece of a productive offseason.

Chicago's offense -- dreadful in the John Fox era -- is bound to improve. The Bears installed new head coach/play caller Matt Nagy, who's well-versed in the successful Andy Reid West Coast system, and they went to great lengths to surround second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with a better supporting cast, both on and off the field.

But on defense, the Bears already viewed themselves as a legitimate top-10 unit even before Smith's arrival.

Imagine if the move that one day puts the Bears over the top comes at the franchise's legacy position.

"I have a ton of respect for the guys that came before me and played the position," Smith said last week at rookie camp. "There are many legends here, so it's great to try to come in and do something special, but I'll just be the best player I can be."

Linked to a legend

Butkus and Smith are forever linked.

Smith, who was named a first-team All-American, was the 2017 collegiate recipient of the Butkus Award, an honor named after the legendary Bears Hall of Famer that recognizes the nation's best linebacker.

Butkus surprised Smith with a video congratulations at a banquet on Georgia's campus. Butkus' son Matt presented Smith with the award, and Butkus later met the Bulldogs linebacker in California after one of Georgia's practices leading up to the Rose Bowl.

"I thought Roquan was a very humble guy," Butkus said. "I talked to a lot of Georgia people about Roquan, and they all said he's a good kid and a hell of a player."

Butkus said he reached out to Smith after the Bears took him in the first round.

"I sent him a text," Butkus said. "He responded immediately. He's just a very nice, humble kid. It's kind of refreshing to see that compared to a lot of these other kids that come out thinking they are all-world. Roquan is a down-to-earth kid and that should serve him well there in Chicago."

Smith described the meeting with Butkus as "pretty great."

"You hear about the award as a kid, so growing up and hearing about Dick Butkus ... there's YouTube so you can always go in there and watch videos and see some of his vicious hits and whatnot," Smith said.

But the highlight of Smith's week came in the actual Rose Bowl game when he was named defensive MVP with 11 tackles, including several key third-down stops.

"I watched Roquan during the Rose Bowl and the kid had a hell of a second half," Butkus said. "I want the Bears to be successful and if Roquan can help us get to that level, heck yeah I'd be up for that. Why wouldn't I be?"

Urlacher approves

Butkus joined the Bears in 1965 with a unique understanding of Chicago. A native of the city, Butkus attended Chicago Vocational High School before enrolling downstate at the University of Illinois.

Hall of Fame-elect Brian Urlacher, who was raised for much of his life in Lovington, New Mexico, didn't have nearly as much big-city experience as Butkus when the Bears drafted him ninth overall in 2000.

Like Smith, who hails from Montezuma, Georgia, Urlacher's origins were humble, but he quickly became one of the best defensive players of his generation, winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2000) and later NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2005).

Urlacher will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in July.

"My big thing when I was a rookie was to be seen and not heard," Urlacher said on the "Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "There are lots of guys that come in and do the opposite and run their mouths. I don't see him being that type of guy at all. But there have been guys that have taken that approach and it didn't work out well for them. Roquan seems like the kind of guy that can go out there and light it up on defense. He just needs to focus on going out there and meeting his teammates."

From a football standpoint, Urlacher believes the Bears made the right call with Smith, who's the second Georgia Bulldogs linebacker drafted by Chicago in the past three years (Leonard Floyd, 2016).

"He's got all the measurables," Urlacher said. "You look at what he did in college. His numbers were great at the combine. All of his tackle numbers were good. He made big plays. He's a smart guy. I think it was a smart draft pick by the Bears. It surprised me because I didn't think they were going to take a linebacker but when a player of that caliber is sitting there, you have to take him. I think they did the right thing.

"Plus, he played in a good defense at Georgia under Mel Tucker, so he already knows how to play in an NFL defense. The learning process should be pretty quick for him."

What to expect as a rookie

Smith's impact is expected to be immediate.

The Bears envision Smith as an every-down linebacker with elite sideline-to-sideline speed. However, Smith's best trait may be pass coverage. Because of his quickness, Smith routinely covered tight ends when they released downfield at Georgia. Considering how often Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio uses his nickel personnel during the course of a game, Smith appears to be an ideal fit.

"It's one of my favorite picks in the draft," ESPN NFL Insider Matt Bowen said. "The Bears filled a need, and they got the best player on the board at the same time. I really didn't think Smith was going to be there at No. 8. That's an excellent pick and a guy Fangio should love to coach. He plays at a different speed against everyone else on film. Remember, he's doing this against Alabama, Auburn and Oklahoma -- the best competition you can get in college football. You won't find better tape."

Add it all up: Pare genuinely excited about the Bears for the first time in a long time.

Chicago still has the unenviable task of playing in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and now Kirk Cousins, but the future looks as bright as it has been since the club began dismantling Lovie Smith's team at the end of the 2012 season.

"I watch every game, unless they are horses---," Butkus said with a laugh. "There have been a couple games that I've had to turn off because I got so frustrated. But of course, I follow them closely.

"I think with this year's draft and free-agent acquisitions ... and I like Trubisky ... I met him at a card show in Rosemont, Illinois, and he seems to be a good kid. I thought Trubisky had a very level head. I'm sure he'll do well. Just give him some time up front, and I see they made some adjustments there and got some receivers for them. All in all, I'm looking for a pretty good year from the Bears. Let's not go crazy about what they should be able to do, but it's a start. They have taken steps forward, not backwards. I'm kind of anxious to see how they do."