Today, Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff continues with 58 days until the team plays host to the Green Bay Packers during the first week of the NFL season, meaning that today we will focus on the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number 58, former Bears linebacker and current Ravens star Roquan Smith.
Roquan Smith's Path to Being a Top 10 Pick by Chicago Bears
From his days at Macon County High School, Roquan Smith has been a linebacker that plays at the top of his league. In his home state of Georgia, Smith was one of the highest-recruited defensive players of his class, garnering attention from top college programs like USC, Michigan, and Texas A&M. As a senior, Smith was Georgia's AA Class Defensive Player of the Year and followed up his dominant regular season with an invite to the Under Armour All-American Game en route to being ranked as high as the nation's number one linebacker prospect. Just a few years later, the high school great would see his number one jersey retired by the school in honor of his greatness while at Macon County.
After initially committing to UCLA, Smith flipped to the University of Georgia and joined the Bulldogs in 2016. Smith was talented enough to see the field immediately, playing in 10 of the team's games as a true freshman and recording 20 total tackles on the year. However, after posting a 5-3 record at the end of the year, long-time head coach Mark Richt was relieved from the program, and the team looked to former Bulldogs player and coach Kirby Smart to lead Georgia back to the top of the SEC where they are today.
In Smart's first season as head coach, the team's win total decreased to just four, but several individuals played extremely well to help reestablish an identity and culture, including a sophomore Smith, who led the team in tackles with 95. It did not take long for this Georgia team to trend upward though, as the team would go 7-1 during Smith's junior season. The regular season was certainly his best, recording team highs with 137 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 14 tackles for loss.
Smith, who served as a permanent captain, was awarded several accolades in 2017, including a First-Team All-SEC and All-American nod, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and the Butkus Award for the nation's top linebacker. Despite all the regular season awards, Smith and the Bulldogs had won the SEC after beating Alabama in the title game and had to prepare for the College Football Playoffs, where the star middle linebacker played his part in one of the best collegiate games ever.
Three-seeded Georgia met Oklahoma at the 2018 Rose Bowl, with Smith's defense going toe-to-toe with Heisman winner Baker Mayfield's offense. In a total shootout, the game went to overtime tied at 45 all, but the Georgia defense was ultimately able to stuff the Oklahoma offense once to win the game 54-48. Smith led the defense with 11 tackles and was named the game's defensive MVP.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs went on to lose the National Championship to Alabama after beating just weeks prior for the SEC title. In another close, overtime game, Smith played lights out, recording a team-high 13 tackles, 2.5 of which were for a loss, and a sack. Nonetheless, Smith opted out of his senior season and entered the 2018 NFL Draft. He finished his collegiate career with 252 total tackles, 20.5 for a loss, 6.5 sacks, three pass deflections, and three forced fumbles.
In the ensuing draft, Smith didn't have to wait long to hear his name called and was selected with the eighth overall pick by the Chicago Bears. Smith filled in a weak spot on a relatively stacked defense that included Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, Akiem Hicks, and the recently acquired Khalil Mack, amongst others.
Roquan Smith Becomes All-Pro Player with Chicago Bears
Smith was able to make a significant impact early as a rookie, starting in 14 of the team's games, playing extremely well to the tune of 121 total tackles, eight for a loss, an interception, and five sacks. In what was head coach Matt Nagy's first season with the Bears, the defense lead the NFL in points allowed and was third in yards allowed en route to a 12-4 record that earned them the NFC North crown and the third seed in the conference.
The Georgia product followed up his rookie season with a strong sophomore campaign, and after playing in just 12 games due to a torn pectoral late in the season, Smith finished the year with 101 tackles, two sacks, and an interception. However, the Bears as a unit struggled, and were only able to finish third in the NFC North.
After missing the playoffs in 2019, the defense strived to reach the postseason yet again in 2020 but was limited to a Wildcard spot after finishing the season 8-8, largely due to the team's offensive struggles. Despite finishing the season at .500, Smith had a terrific season and earned a Second-Team All-Pro nod after recording 139 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and four sacks.
Heading into the 2020 season, Smith's fourth with the Bears, the team exercised the linebacker's fifth-year option, allowing them to delay their contract negotiations. Smith replied by having perhaps his best season as a pro, starting in all 17 of the team's games, while logging 163 total tackles, three sacks, and one interception that was returned for a 53-yard touchdown against Joe Burrow's Bengals. Smith was nominated to the Second-Team All-Pro once again, but the real drama would come in the offseason, when the Bears fired Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace, bringing in a new regime with Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles.
Roquan Smith Traded Midseason from Chicago Bears to Baltimore Ravens
With a new regime and a contract that didn't last past the season, Smith publicly stated his wishes to be traded during the 2022 offseason, leaving the team few options. After playing in and starting the first eight games for the Bears, where he had 83 total tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions, the team was able to accommodate the captain's request and moved the star linebacker to the Baltimore Ravens. In return, the Chicago Bears received linebacker A.J. Klein and a second and fourth-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
The midseason trade seemed to be a win-win for both teams. Smith received a $20 million annual contract, making him the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history, and joined a defense that features elite, young talent, including Marlon Humphrey, Kyle Hamilton, and Patrick Queen. In turn, the Bears, who waived Klein during the season, turned the eventual 53rd and 148th overall picks into defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr. and linebacker Noah Sewell, respectively. The Bears also filled the position by signing Tremaine Edmunds in free agency, whom they are paying just a few million dollars less to than Smith is receiving from the Ravens.
Smith finished the season with 86 tackles, two sacks, and an interception in nine games as a Ravens starter, and appears to be a main, foundational player for the Ravens moving forward. Interestingly enough, Smith, who wore the number 18 at the back end of the season, will don the number 0 for next season, becoming the first player in team history to do so.
There is a lot of internal debate amongst Bears fans and analysts alike about whether or not this was a good idea to trade a player who was recently ranked top 10 for his position by anonymous execs and league members, but the plain truth is that it was a necessary move to get some value for a player who openly voiced that he wouldn't return as a free agent. The Bears got an exciting haul for a great player and were able to replace a crazy athletic linebacker from the 2018 NFL Draft with another player who fits that mold in Edmunds, who was the 16th overall pick himself.
All in all, Smith had a great career with the Bears, playing for 4.5 seasons and earning two (and a half) All-Pro nods. During that time, he logged 524 total tackles, 47 of which were for a loss, 16.5 sacks, and seven interceptions.