Bears' Roquan Smith is rejuvenated after mediocre 2019

Tarik Cohen reflects on how playing at an HBCU helped him (1:59)

Bears running back Tarik Cohen explains how playing at North Carolina A&T aided his professional career, and he discusses how to help get talent at HBCUs recognized. (1:59)

In 2019, Chicago Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith looked ready to take the next step toward NFL stardom after a productive rookie season.

The only problem: it failed to happen.

On paper, Smith’s 100 tackles in 12 games last season was more than palatable.

In reality, Smith’s uneven play -- highlighted by a bizarre Week 4 deactivation versus the Minnesota Vikings -- mirrored that of the entire Bears team in 2019.

The word "unsatisfying" comes to mind. Maybe the stigma is exactly what Smith needed.

Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said Smith, who suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in December, thrived in Chicago’s virtual offseason program and reported to Halas Hall last month in tremendous physical condition.

“He was awesome in the offseason,” Pagano said. “Zoom stuff, engaged, locked in like the rest of his teammates. Coming back, he did a phenomenal job. Coming off the injury, he was one of the guys that could actually come in here, into the facility, and do rehab. So he was kind of ahead of the game that way because he was in here working with [the training and strength staff]. He's in phenomenal shape...

"Going through the meetings to this point, the installs, had a couple walkthroughs with those guys, he's on top of that. He hasn't skipped a beat. I think we've seen Pro Bowl-caliber play, now it's just got to be consistent. Do it week-in and week-out and stay consistent. He's going to have a phenomenal year.”

The Bears used the No. 8 overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft to select Smith, who they touted as an every-down linebacker with off-the-charts toughness and rare coverage skills.

But Bears coaches took Smith off the field on passing downs at times last season.

“As far as run plays, I feel like that can get better,” Smith said. "Pass coverage, that can get better. I feel like everything in my game can get better because there's never a time where you should be complacent, regardless of how well you're doing something. I feel like you can always do something a little bit better. I'm just looking at all facets of my game and trying to be the best version of myself.

“But I'm very excited. I feel great physically, mentally, I feel like I'm very excited for this year. I'm very excited for this season in particular to show the world what I can do. It should be a fun one.”

Pagano said Smith’s two years of NFL experience and familiarity with how the Bears' scheme works will free his mind to allow his physical gifts to take over. In other words, what was once knowledge application has smoothed out into instinct and instant reaction. Every physical reaction will be faster, more explosive.

“Playing the run, playing the RPO stuff, some gap scheme stuff...his run reads, and how he plays those, will be better in Year 3,” Pagano said. “From a coverage standpoint, he’s got a much better understanding from a coverage standpoint. He has a great understanding of the call, why we’re calling it, when we’re going to call it, what’s the situation, and then what’s my job? He’s got his job down, but he also understands where his help is.

"All those things, and then the physical part. He’s in probably the best shape of his life. He’s changed his body. He’s really, really lean. Looks really good. He’s moving around good. Again, his focus right now and his mindset is off the charts. Now, we got no pads on yet and all that stuff, but we love where he’s at right now.”