When Adam Schefter tweeted that Roquan Smith‘s holdout was over and that he had finally signed his rookie deal, Bears fans everywhere breathed a collective – and in some places, fairly audible – sigh of relief. Not just because Smith could start to participate in training camp, but because their focus could shift from “When will this guy sign?” to “What can this guy do?”
The latter was a much more exciting and much less excruciating question than the former, and the answer, as it turned out, was quite a lot. Smith showed flashes, particularly down the stretch, of a player with the makings of a truly dominant inside linebacker. Once again, he joins Danny Trevathan in the middle of the Bears’ defense, but the man adjacent to number 58 in years to come is still in doubt.
Here is a complete preview of the Bears’ inside linebacker group.
Backups: Joel Iyegbuniwe, Nick Kwiatkoski
Camp Depth: Jameer Thurman, James Vaughters
We’ll start with Trevathan, because I don’t think he gets enough credit for stabilizing the Bears’ front seven, beginning in 2016 when he and Akiem Hicks entered Chicago as free agents. Hicks gets the majority of the credit, and rightfully so, but Trevathan’s solid play through the years has been noticeable and a welcome sight after what a disaster this position was before his arrival.
Last year, however, was the first time Trevathan played all 16 games in a season as a Bear and his impact, again, went a bit under the radar. He was a monster early, winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week Two and taking opposing tight ends away throughout the season. Trevathan is a stout presence against the run and pass on every play and the Bears are more than happy to welcome him back for a fourth season.
Smith, a rookie in 2018, didn’t exactly hit the ground running last September but took off as the season moved along. He was a tackling machine, leading the Bears in that category and he became a true sideline-to-sideline player. Much, much more on him later.
Behind them, the man nicknamed “Iggy” should be the first man off the bench. Drafted last year in the fourth round – a bit too high by most analysts’ opinion – he performed well and showcased his speed on special teams last year but the Bears would like to see a further developed player in preseason. If he performs well enough then, or in place of an injured Trevathan or Smith, he could find himself in line to start next season. That being said, that’s a big “if.”
Kwiatkoski was last year’s opening night starter, and that was the only game he started all year, for good reason. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers took advantage of the hole he created inside and on medium-distance throws, carving up the middle on their way to a comeback victory. He still serves a purpose in the third phase, but should not be asked to do much else.
Typically, the Bears will keep four inside backers. Woods has an uphill climb, but the second-year man out of Maryland managed to stay on the practice squad all season and has reportedly been impressive so far since April. Pierre-Louis is almost exclusively a special teamer, but he does have experience playing under Bears head coach Matt Nagy.
Key Training Camp Battle: Should Kwiatkoski be looking over his shoulder?
Typically, a player like Kwiatkoski would be a roster lock, or at least a solid bet. He’s a typical backup linebacker who is strong, physical, and can blitz a bit, but more importantly, he will line up on multiple special teams units. However, I would argue that he should be a bit nervous about where he stands.
As I explained here, the Bears have all but given up on Kwiatkoski as a starter because he just isn’t fast enough and he doesn’t have the reactionary ability to compensate. As a result, and because Trevathan’s days in Chicago may be numbered, he could lose his spot if Woods performs like he could start down the line or if Pierre-Louis proves a more useful special teamer. The Bears must try everything to try and find a cheap, young potential fill-in for their veteran backer on an expiring deal, and that may mean letting Kwiatkoski go.
Keys to Success
1. Cover the backs
Every pairing of inside backers in today’s NFL has to be able to stay with quick, savvy route-runners out of the backfield. The league’s offensive coordinators have figured out that option, angle, and wheel routes from next to a quarterback in the gun or behind him in an under-center look can be nearly uncoverable if you have the right personnel and get the right defensive look.
In turn, linebackers have gotten faster as a way to counter that, and no two players in the league may be better equipped to do so than Trevathan and Smith, who fit this newfound archetype perfectly. They have the speed and the instincts to stay with backs like Todd Gurley, Chris Thompson, Saquon Barkley, and (most dangerous of all) Alvin Kamara – all of whom appear on Chicago’s 2019 schedule.
2. Complex blitz packages
Chuck Pagano is here, which means Trevathan and Smith will be asked to charge at the quarterback much more often than they were last season, and in a wider variety of ways. Maybe they’ll try to scrape off the edge as Mack plunges into the B-gap, or maybe they’ll loop behind one another and a double A-gap stunt, or they may even replace a dropping defensive tackle on the side of the ball where the signal-caller least expects it.
Both of the Bears’ starters, especially Smith, will have their fair share of sacks this year. For insight about how they figure to accomplish that with Pagano’s help, check out this thread I worked on in January.
Pagano likes to “sugar” his ILBs at the LOS to create looks like this. This defensive set forces the C and RB to pick up 53 and the G to pick up 90, so no one can pick up the nickel off the edge. Suggs’s loop inside forces the T to turn his back to the guy who sacks his QB. pic.twitter.com/gDP9WnSmzw
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) January 12, 2019
3. Roquan Smith is going to be a monster
This part will answer the question that the article’s headline presented. Yes, he is, and here’s why. In the first half of 2018, Smith was solid. He made a few rookie mistakes and showed some flashes of things to come, but for the most part he didn’t jump off the screen much.
That changed around Week Eight, Nine, or Ten. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but he started flying around the field. And I mean flying. His official 40-time from the combine is 4.51, but if I was told it was in the 4.3s, I wouldn’t blink. Once he got comfortable in Fangio’s defense and started doing more playing than thinking, he was everywhere.
With a full training camp to get Pagano’s scheme down, I anticipate Smith to hit the ground running. One of the more widely-praised picks in the 2018 draft is about to break out in a big way, and Bears fans should be anxious to see it happen in September.