Ryan Poles facing first big test as Bears GM with Roquan Smith contract holdout

Roquan Smith Contract

Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith won’t report to training camp with the rest of the team’s veterans Tuesday in his effort to secure a new contract before the 2022 season kicks off. Smith, the Bears’ 2018 first-round pick, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and has positioned himself to reset the inside linebacker market with his next deal.

Assuming, of course, general manager Ryan Poles decides to give him one.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Bears have yet to offer Smith a contract “he would remotely consider.” It’s a shocking development considering Smith’s status as the Chicago Bears’ most important defensive player. He’s arguably the most talented football player on the team. At just 25 years old, Smith’s resume of production and long-term outlook make him the kind of talent teams like the Bears should prioritize in a rebuild.

But prioritizing Smith means paying him a lot of money. Indianapolis Colts star Darius Leonard sits at the top of the inside linebacker market. Last August, he signed a five-year, $98.5 million deal with the Colts. His average salary of $19.7 million per year means any contract the Bears offer Smith likely has to start at or around $20 million per season. It’d be more than double Smith’s expected 2022 salary of $9.735 million.

Poles has taken a conservative approach to his first offseason as the Bears’ general manager. It’s a strategy that’s drawn criticism around the league. Analysts expected Chicago to invest resources into the offensive line and at wide receiver in free agency and early in the 2022 NFL Draft. Poles did neither. Instead, he’s signed low-level free-agent wide receivers on prove-it deals and invested mid-to-late round selections on offensive linemen. This isn’t to suggest Poles’ plan is wrong. Wide receiver Byron Pringle may become a breakout star. Perhaps, offensive tackle Braxton Jones or wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. will be home runs from the 2022 draft. His method requires time to judge it fairly.

Roquan Smith contract unlike other Bears’ offseason concerns

Smith’s contract is an entirely different story, however. He’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL. The Bears’ roster has few — if any — players at any other position that come close to Smith’s standing in the league. He’s a homegrown talent — a Bears draft pick. He’s a leader in the locker room. Smith has done everything coach Matt Eberflus has asked of him this offseason. He’s done his part; now it’s time for Poles to do his.

It’s worth asking what the point of drafting good players is if you aren’t going to pay them to stick around. If Poles wants to build through the NFL Draft, decisions like this — extending players who turn into the best at their position — are good outcomes. And paying players their worth is a fantastic message to the locker room: play well, and you’ll get rewarded.

Smith, a two-time second-team All-Pro, had a career-high 163 tackles in 2021. It was the fifth-most of any defender in the league.

Chicago is a linebacker city that’s always valued defense first. Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher are synonymous with Bears football. While Smith still has a ways to go before joining that select fraternity, his presence in the middle of the Bears’ defense gives fans a star to cheer for.

Khalil Mack was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason, and Eddie Jackson is no longer viewed as one of the league’s elite. Akiem Hicks is gone. There’s excitement around rookies Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker, but Bears fans know all too well what it feels like to be let down by high draft picks.

Signing Smith matters both on the field and in the stands. Picture a 2022 Bears defense without Smith. It isn’t pretty. Defensive coordinator Alan Wiliams already has his work cut out for him, and that’s under the assumption Smith will lead his unit. If he’s removed from the equation, good luck.

I get it. Paying linebackers top-of-the-market money may not be the best team-building strategy, but the Bears can’t keep playing the long game. At some point, Poles has to do something. The timing and talent weren’t right in free agency, but neither is an issue with the Smith negotiations. The Chicago Bears can afford to pay him, and his talent warrants a hefty raise.

Poles will get the time he needs to build the Bears’ roster his way. He’ll do it through the draft and with smart, calculated decisions in free agency. Signing Smith is an example of how both of those objectives collide: he was a great draft pick in 2018 who’s just beginning his prime. The Chicago Bears, through Poles, can keep him locked up for the long haul with this smart and calculated contract extension.

We’ll learn a lot about Poles from how he handles Roquan Smith over the next few days (or even weeks). If he doesn’t do right by the Chicago Bears’ most valuable defender, the honeymoon period will quickly end for the first-time GM.

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