About 45 minutes after Chicago Bears practice Tuesday at Halas Hall, linebacker Roquan Smith walked across Field 3 in a navy practice jersey and white cap.
Smith was present for the day’s activities, standing with the defense along the sideline as the rest of his team went about their training camp routine. But for the 15th straight practice, Smith was a bystander, a stubborn statue unwilling to break his “hold” amid stalled contract negotiations.
After practice, Bears coach Matt Eberflus acknowledged that Smith is likely to board the team’s flight to Seattle for Thursday night’s preseason game against the Seahawks. But as the financial joust enters its fourth week, it’s hard to predict how he might end up. Or when.
The Bears don’t say much. Smith remains out of sight of reporters. General manager Ryan Poles offered four minutes of angry thoughts on Aug. 9, the day Smith used NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport. to post your statement requesting an exchange. And Eberflus remains elusive in the soap opera.
“I really don’t have anything,” he said Tuesday when asked about the latest. “All I can say is that it is where she is now and we are day by day. Are you in the building? Yes. Are you engaged? Yes.”
Beyond that, Eberflus declined to say whether the team is disciplining Smith for his refusing to practice while healthy. The outside guess is that the Bears are at least fining Smith this week. But who really knows?
Eberflus also emphasized that he feels good about his relationship with Smith and isn’t concerned about a possible rift between arguably his best defensive player and his front office managers.
“You’re always working on relationships,” Eberflus said. “And I know I say that a lot. But it is very important, with Roquan and any other player. It is important to keep the relationship and communication open and on the table. That is what we are trying to do.”
It’s been more than a week since Smith threatened the civility of contract negotiations, penning a 348-word missive and sending it to Rapoport. That was a calculated leverage play on Smith’s part to try to garner public support by criticizing his employer in hopes of speeding up his offer of a record deal.
Smith tried to strike a chord with Bears fans with references to Wilber Marshall, Mike Singletary, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Dick Butkus. He expressed his desire to play the rest of his career in Chicago. He later accused the Bears of refusing to trade in good faith.
“Every step of this journey has been ‘take it or leave it,'” Smith wrote. “I’ve been trying to do something fair since April, but their focus has been trying to take advantage of me.”
Just as the sides appeared to be building a bridge across the canyon, Smith turned on the ropes and publicly applied to be traded.
“As of now,” he said, “I don’t see a way back to the organization that I truly love.”
It was a direct challenge to a new and inexperienced regime that has no track record in resolving such issues. But beyond stirring up Poles and his hired crew at Halas Hall, it’s hard to know what Smith accomplished with those raging jets of kerosene on a fire that, until then, had been contained.
Now, the crackling flames are heard almost daily as the fight over Smith’s contract grabs headlines for a team that has plenty of other things it would rather focus on. On Tuesday, for example, the first seven questions of Eberflus’ post-practice press conference were related to Roquan.
And that’s where all this fuss gets so complicated, especially for Smith, whose influence right now is probably not what he hoped it would be.
A potential exchange? Well, that would require the following:
- The Poles and Bears are willing to trade him.
- Another team very interested in acquiring it.
- Said team is poised to give Smith a lengthy and possibly record-breaking contract extension that approaches or exceeds $100 million in total value.
- That team is also willing to part with significant draft capital to persuade the Bears to part with a 25-year-old playmaker widely regarded as one of the top five or six inside linebackers in the league.
Through that lens, it’s easy to understand why the Poles’ cell phone probably won’t make it into an auction arena.
From the start, the Poles and Eberflus have spoken enthusiastically of Smith as a player, believing that his production will only increase with a new defensive system that takes advantage of his speed and instincts. But the team’s assessment of Smith’s contributions, past and future, has fallen short of what Smith thinks it should be.
Well-documented are the five-year, $95.2 million contract San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner signed last summer and the five-year, $98.5 million extension the Indianapolis Colts gave Shaquille Leonard a few weeks later provide. a target range for Smith.
But in the league, the consensus remains that Smith isn’t quite in that class as a game changer. He is considered a shelf below Leonard, Warner and Dallas Cowboys star Micah Parsons, and in a class with other off-the-ball linebackers such as Devin White and Lavonte David of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Demario Davis of the New Orleans Saints. and Bobby Wagner of the Los Angeles Rams.
That is not an insult. It’s just a way of framing how Smith is seen, as a really good player begging to be paid like one of the biggest superstars in the league.
While Smith was a second-team All-Pro the past two seasons, he was ranked 84th on NFL Network’s Top 100 Overall Players list this week.
Worse yet for Smith, that bitter statement he made last week didn’t spark a stampede of passionate fans rallying to his defense. Bears fans seem divided. Some believe he should be paid every penny he asks for, while others see him as more of a solid player, but not one who will make enough contributions to changing the franchise to be worth cleaning out the safe.
Thus, the staring contest continues without much passion on the part of the audience.
The view of Smith in many league circles is of a productive, dependable starter who can be a valuable asset to a championship team, but likely won’t be the engine of a Super Bowl run. And that’s quite a distinction, like comparing an M-80 to a barrel of TNT.
The feeling is that through four seasons with the Bears, Smith has shown that he can regularly do energizing things, ride-killing stops but has not shown that it is a constant play-changer In 61 career games, he has 43 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, but only five interceptions and one forced fumble.
Remember the pick-six Smith made in Week 2 last season to spark a binge for the Bears in a 20-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals? That was exactly the kind of exclamation point that seemed to validate Smith’s rise.
But beyond that, what are Smith’s signature moments in his first four seasons? His interception of him in the first half off Jared Goff in the Bears’ 2018 win over the Rams?
What other moments belong on that ticket? And how shocking were they really?
Perhaps Poles is justified in seeking additional evidence that Smith can be reliable off the field and productive on it. Perhaps GM’s effort to set a fair price is prudent.
Earlier this week, news leaked that Smith had a representative not certified by the NFL Players Association contact other teams to gauge interest in a potential trade, in violation of league policy. that prompted a memo from the NFL office to each team warning against participating in any type of discussion related to the contract with Smith’s camp. It was another surprising twist that hasn’t been good for Smith.
Overall, Smith’s body of work over four seasons has been commendable. And the Bears should be able to compensate him well, particularly at a time in their build process when they aren’t allocating significant financial resources to their quarterback.
But neither has Smith been Urlacher or Singletary or Butkus. And to be rewarded as one of the highest-paid linebackers in league history, Smith should have more Hall of Fame flashes to point to when he participated in the tug-of-war with the Poles, managing director of football Matt Feinstein and the senior vice president. President Cliff Stein.
Also, while Smith is considered a respected figure in the Bears’ locker room, it’s getting harder to classify him as one of the biggest leaders on this team. Of the other 21 defenders on the two-deep depth chart, 12 have never played a snap with Smith. Thus, they don’t have the kind of emotional attachment to their production or their contract fight that could apply additional pressure to the front office.
Take starting middle linebacker Nick Morrow as an example. Morrow entered the league in 2017 as an undrafted Division III rookie out of the University of Greenville and signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Bears this spring after five seasons with the Raiders. Morrow described a cordial relationship with Smith on Tuesday, but also seemed unconcerned about when or if Smith will return to the field with him.
“One thing I’ve learned about this league, there’s no certainty,” Morrow said. “I am not sure. I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I wish the best for the Bears and obviously for him. I hope you are here. But if he is not? It is what it is. If it is, great.”
From there, Morrow went about his day as the minutes ticked down to the start of the season.
Smith’s trade request last week, “deeply painful” in his words, barely seemed to resonate.
“I am deeply sorry that it has come to this,” Smith wrote.
A week later, a less dramatic tune was playing inside Halas Hall.
It is what it is.
That’s the equivalent of a shrug, which seems to be a common reaction to many of this miniseries’ episodes. Now what?