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Bears' Roquan Smith takes place among league's elite linebackers

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Why Spears sees locker room division with the Bears (0:57)

Marcus Spears sees the Bears' locker room as divided given the strength of the defense and the struggles of the offense. (0:57)

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Judging by the opening three months of the 2020 regular season, Roquan Smith is on the path to becoming the next great Chicago Bears linebacker.

On a Bears defense loaded with talent, Smith has been the best of the group, outdoing even former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack in terms of impact plays through 10 games.

“Roquan Smith is always flying around,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “That’s been a consistent theme all year long for him. I’m proud of him.”

The Bears (5-5) will rely on Smith and the rest of their top-rated defense to change the team’s fortunes when Chicago travels to Lambeau Field on Sunday night for what amounts to a make-it-or-break-it division game versus rival Green Bay (7-3).

After beginning the season 5-1, the Bears have lost four straight and are in danger of slipping out of the NFC playoff picture.

Weighed down by a virtually non-existent offense, the Bears will lean heavily on defensive playmakers such as Smith doing enough down the stretch to keep Chicago’s flickering postseason hopes alive.

“The question of whether Roquan has arrived is over,” Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said.

“This is just now just an ascending player who is going to do nothing but get better and grow mentally. He's going to keep sharpening his sword every single day he walks in this building. With the level of play comes confidence and that's at a high level right now. His confidence is off the charts. I just think you're going to see a guy continue to progress and play really, really well.”

Smith has developed into exactly the type of player the Bears envisioned when they drafted the Georgia product eighth overall in 2018.

The 23-year-old is one of the league’s best linebackers -- first in the league in tackles for loss (15) and tied for second in total tackles (96) through Week 11 -- and with each passing game plays closer to the standards set by legendary Bears linebackers of the past: Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.

“When I think of Lance the first thing I think of is one of the best open-field tacklers I’ve played with, and how when it was third-and-8 and we had to get a guy down before the other team got a first down, there was nobody I’d put my money on more than Lance Briggs to make that play, and Roquan has that same ability to make really hard plays look easy,” said former Bears strong side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who played alongside Urlacher and Briggs on multiple NFC North championship defenses.

“I feel that Roquan’s strength is that he can do everything. That was kind of what Urlacher was, too. You got this guy that can run the defense, can get people lined up, has coach-on-the-field attributes but also is fast as a defensive back and can make any play there is to make and stays on the field the whole game."

In a statistical sense, Smith has dominated since the day he arrived in Chicago. Smith recorded a team-high 122 tackles -- two shy of the Bears' rookie record -- in his first NFL season as he helped the Bears soar to 12-4 and qualify for the postseason. Last year, Smith’s production dipped slightly, but he still finished with 100 tackles in just 12 games.

"Yeah, Roquan has the 4.5 speed and all the vanity metrics, but to me, it’s just so much easier for the coaches when you know this guy can do everything you need him to do," Hillenmeyer said. "You don’t have to scheme around him or protect him from any perceived weaknesses, because he doesn’t have any.”

Yet, Smith encountered turbulence in 2019, and for reasons never publicly disclosed, fell short of meeting expectations. Without any warning, the Bears deactivated Smith for personal reasons in Week 4 of last year, and it took several weeks for the former Butkus Award winner to regain his on-field footing. Just when Smith appeared to have recovered, the young linebacker suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle and missed the final three games.

Fast forward almost one full year, and whatever ailed Smith in the past is a distant memory.

“Roquan flashed right away, but I think earlier in his career he’d make a ‘wow’ kind of play but then he’d maybe make a mistake or an assignment mistake that would cost him on the next snap,” Hillenmeyer said. “For me, what’s caught my attention the past two years as he’s started to mature is that he still makes the ‘wow’ plays, but he’s also making the plays you are supposed to make on top of the plays that only a guy with his physical abilities can make. That’s when you get a guy that’s one of the best in the league.”

Smith already recorded more tackles for loss (15) in 10 games in 2020 than in the previous two years combined (13).

“It’s his film study, his preparation,” Bears inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “[Fellow inside linebacker] Danny [Trevathan] and him, they live on their iPads. When they’re not in the building, they’re watching film. When you get that, you study the footwork of the back and see the line and see that triangle and be able to diagnose the play, and play fast and attack and have no fear.

“I tell those guys all the time, don’t be scared of missing a play. I don’t care. If you shoot and you miss, you shoot and you miss. I’ll take that all day. I think he’s playing with aggression.”

Smith additionally plays with a high level of intelligence. Not only did Smith make the All-SEC Academic honor roll three times, the Bears also have entrusted him with on-field defensive play-calling duties to Smith; he wears a green dot on his helmet that permits him to have radio communication with coaches.

“When he got the green dot, he was ready for it,” DeLeone said. “Sometimes you have to grow into that role, and he’s done an amazing job of taking that responsibility and running with it. I’m really, really proud of the way he’s done that, because he is young, but he’s growing and he’s maturing all the time. I’m very proud of Roquan, but more than just as a player, as the way he’s growing as a leader, as a man in the middle of this defense...It’s really easy to coach guys that love playing football like he does."