It’s typically overambitious to associate “make-or-break” seasons with 23-year-olds. But after the potential he’s displayed to this point, it feels like this will become one of the defining seasons of his career.
At this point in his career, the big knock on Smith has been his consistency. On film, he’s often the first player my eyes gravitated towards, a testament to his play recognition and positioning. But, he subsequently shot himself in the foot on numerous occasions by hesitating to shoot gaps in the run game quickly enough.
One can only get so negative when accessing Smith, though. The year-to-year improvements have gotten incrementally better. For instance: in 2018, Smith played a key role in Chicago’s defense, but left 13 missed tackles on the field. That number plummeted to just four whiffed tackles in 2019.
Those upticks lead us to believe we’re inching closer to seeing the player the Chicago Bears prioritized with the No. 8 selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. At the University of Georgia, Smith didn’t give up a single missed tackle in 2017.
The comfort level is there. Smith is more at ease in sitting back and defending in coverage, too. He allowed just a 75.9 quarterback rating when targeted in 2019.
One of the aspects you absolutely have to love about Smith is that the following years have always been better than the previous. Reports have offered that he’s approaching 2020 with a chip on his shoulder, and that bodes well historically. As a case in point:
For whatever it’s worth, Chicago linebackers have created tradition out of dominant seasons at age 23. Dick Butkus and Brian Urlacher were both named All-Pro and Pro Bowlers at that age, and players like Wilber Marshall and Lance Briggs burst onto the scene at that age.
The rest of the NFL has taken notice, too. CBS Sports ranked Smith as the No. 8 linebacker, and sixth-best in the NFC. He’s got his work cut out for him getting ahead of Bobby Wagner, Demario Davis and Eric Kendricks, but injury replacements have been needed every year since 2017, so there’s hope.
At 6-foot, 230, Smith’s success feels largely contingent on the line in front of him. In a best-case scenario, he’s allowed to roam freely and use his speed to chase tackles. If health permits, this year could be his best chance.
Playing behind the likes of Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akeem Hicks will allow him a chance to be himself. He feels like the safest bet to make the next level jump towards Pro Bowl status.