A little before 9 a.m. Wednesday, the Chicago Bears officially placed linebacker Roquan Smith on the PUP list, a somewhat peculiar roster move that came a day after general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus acknowledged Smith’s contract dismay and the possibility that it may affect your availability during training camp.
Still, going by the script after Wednesday’s camp practice, Eberflus insisted something came up during Smith’s team physical on Monday that led to his designation as a PUP. What specifically?
“I’m not going to talk about a bunch of injuries or this and that,” Eberflus said.
When jokingly asked if a conspicuous contract extension could magically make Smith physically capable of acting again, Eberflus didn’t even crack a smile.
“Well, now I know he’s in (PUP),” the Bears coach said. “And that’s all I can say at this point.”
Look, by now everyone knows what this is, no matter how many bad directions the Bears try to run. Smith, entering the final year of his rookie deal, wants a new deal that rewards him as one of the most impactful defensive players in the game. And until contract negotiations with the Poles and the front office move in a direction he finds agreeable, Smith likely won’t return to the Halas Hall practice fields.
That’s why he spent the first part of Wednesday’s practice pedaling a stationary bike instead of stretching or working out. That could become a familiar sight in the coming days and weeks.
By checking into camp on time Tuesday, Smith avoided a spate of fines that would have occurred due to the collective bargaining agreement. But by staying out of practice, Smith has an opportunity to apply additional pressure to the front office, even with Poles’ continued public emphasis that he believes in Smith as a player and a leader.
How things could evolve from here is anyone’s guess. Smith was again unavailable to reporters Wednesday and he may not break his silence until he returns to the active roster, which could require him to have substantial financial security and a contract that extends well beyond March. .
It’s also important to stress that Smith’s current situation is far from unique in the NFL. In San Francisco, for example, wide receiver Deebo Samuel is looking for a big 49ers payday as he enters the final season of his rookie deal. Samuel’s dissatisfaction spiked so high this spring that he asked the 49ers to trade him. But the simmer of that situation has since subsided, and there are signs that a new deal for Samuel could come before Week 1.
Like Smith, Samuel was on time for training camp this week. Like Smith, he isn’t practicing but doing conditioning work on the side, according to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.
(Unlike Smith, Samuel was not included in the cub list.)
Last summer in Pittsburgh, All-Pro pass-rusher TJ Watt organized a similar “holdback,” reporting to camp but declining to participate in team drills or on-field activities that included hitting. That was framed as Watt’s way of physically protecting himself until the team gave him long-term financial security.
As Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler pointed out last August, “You don’t want to get hurt when you’re trying to get your contract done. So you lose some flexibility in terms of what you can sign.”
In September, Watt agreed to a four-year, $112 million contract extension that included a $35 million signing bonus and $80 million guaranteed.
For the Bears, it could take a five-year, $100 million ballpark extension with a big chunk of that guaranteed to help Smith integrate back into the defense. But there could be added complexity to Smith’s contract talks given that he doesn’t have an agent.
For now, this is all just a minor inconvenience, but a headache for a rebuild team that has a lot of other big issues to work out.
Eberflus was asked Wednesday how his communication with Smith has been since Tuesday.
“He’s really in a good place,” Eberflus said. “We had a great conversation, we just talked to him about where he is. He is focused. He is in meetings and he is connected in that way.”
Eberflus also emphasized his expectations for Smith while he is off the practice field.
“Stay involved. Be a leader. Get engaged,” Eberflus said. “What he is doing and will do. He is a professional. He has been in the league long enough. He is a very good player. We are excited to have him as a Chicago Bear.”
Eberflus and his coaches will be even more excited once Smith returns to practice. But that timeline could depend on how flexible and generous Poles wants to be to make his outstanding linebacker contractually happy. And for now, that dance is being danced behind the scenes.