“Welcome to the NFL” moment comes late for Roquan

By Herb Howard


As Nino Brown so eloquently put it in the classic film New Jack City, “It’s always business, never personal.” Going into his 5th year in the League, Roquan Smith has finally gotten his “Welcome to the NFL” moment.


Roquan Smith (#58)/ John L. Alexander - January 2022


From the moment Roquan Smith stepped on the field for the Chicago Bears he seemed more than ready for the challenge. His physical gifts were obvious. He possessed the speed to run sideline to sideline, chasing down ball carriers with ease. He had the natural instincts to quickly diagnose what the offense was doing, and the explosiveness to react in time to shut it down.


For Smith, there was no glaring “Welcome to the NFL” moment, like we often see with even the best Rookies. There was no memorable moment of him being embarrassingly trucked by a Running Back, or embarrassingly pancaked by an Offensive Lineman. We saw him comfortably run with Running Backs on wheel routes, easily carry Tight Ends up the seam and even stick with Wide Receivers in the slot. It became apparent that with the 8th pick in the 1st round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears may have selected their next great Linebacker.


Over the first four years of his career, Roquan Smith has continued to live up to those lofty expectations. The two-time All-Pro LB has amassed 504 tackles, 14 sacks, and 5 interceptions. By all accounts, he has been a great leader for the Bears on and off the field. Entering his 5th season, with an aging Robert Quinn and a still developing Justin Fields, Roquan is quite possibly the Bears’ best player. The confident and principled young man felt, rightfully, that he had earned a new contract.


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Roquan Smith, who, in lieu of an agent, represents himself, began contract negotiations with Chicago Bears’ first year General Manager Ryan Poles. Both parties stated a clear intention to reach a long-term deal, and ensure that Smith would be a Bear for years to come.


Somewhere along the way those negotiations soured, as it became apparent the two sides were not close to agreeing to terms on an extension. Smith, who had been an active participant during Organized Team Activities in the Spring, chose to stage a “hold-in” at the start of training camp. He was at Halas Hall every day, and present for practice, but not participating. In a mutually beneficial move for the Roquan and the Bears, he was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. It was a good faith gesture by the team, as Roquan would not be officially seen as sitting out practice. The move also allowed the Bears to add an additional player to their roster while Smith was inactive.


While I saw this standoff between Poles and Smith having the potential to last longer, most onlookers were cautiously optimistic that a deal would be reached and all would be well. At least that is until Roquan went public with his request for a trade on the morning of August 9, saying that he felt disrespected in the contract negotiations. In a roughly 300-word statement, Smith alleged that the Bears had continually given him a “take it or leave it” proposal, and that they were not negotiating in good faith. He said that while he Loves Chicago and thought he’d play his entire career here, he was now resigned to the fact that he would have to go elsewhere to seek fair compensation. Smith even suggested that perhaps ownership, the McCaskey’s themselves, could get involved and resolve the dispute.


Hours after Roquan Smith released his public statement on the morning of the Chicago Bears annual “Family Fest” at Soldier Field, GM Ryan Poles addressed the media in an unscheduled press conference. He reiterated his Love for Roquan as a player and person, and said that it remained his goal to sign Smith to an extension. He disputed the claim that the organization had been disrespectful to Roquan during these negotiations. He said that there were record-setting aspects of the contract they offered, though he didn’t detail what those aspects were.



Roquan Smith (#58)/ John L. Alexander - January 2022


The next morning, Ryan Poles officially clapped back at Roquan. Smith was removed from the PUP list, potentially opening the door for the Bears to fine him for missing practice and also making it clear to the court of public opinion, whom Smith had appealed to a day earlier, that Roquan was completely healthy and simply choosing not to perform his contractual duties.


Over the next ten days, there would be no further developments made public. Roqaun continued to present at practice but not participating. We would not hear from Ryan Poles and though questioned on the topic daily, Bears coaches gave no updates on Smith’s status.


Then, on Saturday, as I was observing the Bears practice inside The Walter Payton Center, Jason Lieser of the Sun-Times tapped me and said “Is that Roquan? With a helmet?”, as he pointed across the field. I said “Well I’ll be damned, that is him.” Roquan was preparing to participate in practice for the first time all training camp. The “hold-in” was apparently over. Just a moment later, a member of the Bears media relations department approached and informed us that Roquan Smith would be speaking to the media following practice. *Insert mind blown emoji* We were finally going to hear straight from Roquan himself, why he was holding in, where the negotiations currently stood, and why he’s now chosen to participate in practice.





The rest of the practice became virtually unimportant, an unnecessary burden, as we eagerly awaited the press conference with the star linebacker.


We spoke with Bears Head Coach Matt Eberflus first, who expressed his obvious pleasure with Roquan’s return. He told me that there is “plenty of time” for Smith, who has been in all the defensive meetings throughout training camp, to be ready and able to start Week 1 for the Bears when San Francisco comes to Soldier Field to begin the regular season.


When Roquan Smith entered the room, you could feel the anticipation in the air. Before a single question would be asked, Roqaun gave a statement in which he said that the contract negotiations had come to end and that he would be playing out the final year of his current contract.


Roquan said that he would be betting on himself and that he has now turned his focus towards being the best teammate that he can be this season. Asked about the details of his contract demands, Roquan would only say that he had a number and the Bears had a number, and those two numbers were not the same. He said that he does not regret not having an agent in this process. When I asked him how he would reconcile having to represent a franchise that he feels has disrespected him, Roqaun told me that his loyalty lies with the city of Chicago and his teammates.


The reality is that Roquan Smith will earn $9.7 million dollars this year. Sure, that is a lot of money to me, however, I’m not one of the very best Linebackers in the National Football League, for whom the market rate is nearly $20 million a year. It is also a fact that the Bears could also Franchise Tag Roquan next year, controlling his rights for yet another season. Although he didn’t seem too upset at the prospect of that, as the Franchise Tag designation would net him very close to what I’m sure he was asking for annually, anyway.


Roquan Smith is a great player and for that, I feel he deserves the money that he desires. I also understand that the NFL is a business and sometimes in business, timing is everything. Unfortunately, for Roquan, the timing of his contract negotiations gave all the leverage to Ryan Poles and the Bears. If the Bears were a legitimate Super Bowl contender this year, they may not be so inclined to play hardball with their best player, but, as a rebuilding franchise that can control Smith’s rights for at least the next two seasons, the Bears don’t have to cave into his demands. I’m sure that’s a harsh reality to accept for a player who has poured his heart and soul into this franchise.

Roquan Smith made his transition from college to the pros look easy. Dominating from Day 1, he recorded a sack on his very first play in the NFL. The game wasn’t too fast, the players weren’t too strong, the moments weren’t too big. He was ready. For everything on the field, at least. Off the field, the well-intentioned kid from Georgia had a lot to learn about the business of football.


As Nino Brown so eloquently put it in the classic film New Jack City, “It’s always business, never personal.” Going into his 5th year in the League, Roquan Smith has finally gotten his “Welcome to the NFL” moment.