Examining Bears LB Roquan Smith’s extension candidacy

Although the Bears have a new regime in place, one that has gutted the previous staff’s front seven, Roquan Smith‘s status with the organization still appears secure.

One season, at a fifth-year option price of $9.74M, remains on the linebacker’s rookie contract. New Bears GM Ryan Poles is planning to discuss a Smith extension, per Adam Jahns of The Athletic. The prospect of a new deal before the season looms, though it is not a lock.

“I don’t know if that’s how we’re going to handle it, but I would like to,” Poles said, via ESPN.com’s Courtney Cronin. “Obviously the earlier you get to that, the better. But also with a new staff, we may wait a little bit, too.”

The rebuilding Bears no longer have too much money tied to their defense, with several veteran deals coming off their books in March. Smith, who said in April he “absolutely” seeks a long-term Chicago stay, represents the team’s front-seven cornerstone and would make sense as the first big defensive investment for Poles and Matt Eberflus. Though, the off-ball linebacker market has changed considerably since the Ryan Pace regime drafted Smith.

The talented off-ball ‘backer has been a starter since going off the 2018 draft board eighth overall, teaming with Danny Trevathan in Vic Fangio-, Chuck Pagano– and Sean Desai-coordinated 3-4 schemes. The Bears are shifting to a 4-3 alignment under Eberflus, but teams pay up for defenders’ sub-package usage. Smith, 25, has been a three-down player throughout his career.

Smith is coming off another strong season, one in which he paired 163 tackles with three sacks and a pick-six. He has 14 career sacks and also accumulated 30 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Smith’s 30 TFLs since 2020 not only lead all off-ball linebackers by a wide margin; that total sits second to only T.J. Watt among all linebackers. While no Pro Bowls appear on Smith’s resume, the four-year veteran has received Second-Team All-Pro nods in each of the past two years.

Poles signed off on cutting Trevathan, a six-year Chicago starter, and nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who was a D-line first-stringer for six years. The Bears traded Khalil Mack, severing ties with the All-Pro edge rusher after four seasons. Six-year D-end starter Akiem Hicks
signed with the Buccaneers on Tuesday. Robert Quinn has been with the Bears two years and broke Richard Dent‘s single-season team sack record in 2021, but the 11-year veteran does not seem a fit on a team that looks unlikely to contend this season. Quinn, 31, is believed to want out. Smith, however, is much younger than his longtime teammates, being squarely in his prime.

Smith’s option price would have been higher were he selected to a Pro Bowl. That promises to come up once the Bears begin negotiations in earnest; so do the Second-Team All-Pro accolades. The top of the linebacker market moved last year, with Fred Warner ($19M per year) and Darius Leonard ($19.7M AAV) using the C.J. Mosley and Bobby Wagner contracts as springboards to raise the ceiling of a positional landscape that looked drastically different prior to Mosley’s 2019 Jets pact ($17M AAV).

Eberflus’ past with Leonard certainly bodes well for Smith. Still, a gap between the Leonard-Warner-Mosley tier and the field exists. Only two other traditional linebackers — Deion Jones (on a 2019 extension, one that may be shed soon) and ex-teammate Foyesade Oluokun — currently earn at least $14M per year. The salary cap’s renewed growth, following its second-ever reduction in 2021, also stands to help extension-seeking players this year.

The gaps in between these linebacker salary tiers create some space for Smith’s camp to negotiate while also injecting some uncertainty into the talks. Smith can set his price above Jones ($14.25M per year), Oluokun ($15M AAV) and probably Mosley, but it will be interesting to see how the Bears’ new regime values him in comparison to First-Team All-Pros Warner and Leonard.

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