Roquan Smith’s professional debut on Sunday may have been brief, but it sure showed why the Bears chose the University of Georgia product with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft (despite they the pre-existence of two other starting inside linebackers). And it also showed why he needs to be in the Chicago Bears’ starting lineup very soon.
Smith’s eight snaps on Sunday produced three tackles, one sack, a tackle-for-loss, and a QB hit. Impacting so much of the game in such a short period of time really underscores his skills, athleticism, and upside. And I’m here to argue that moving him into the starting lineup *as soon as possible* could make a defense already bubbling over with potential turn into something great.
When Smith entered the lineup for the first time on Sunday, he was in a nickel package with Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd lurking off the edges. The Bears used this opportunity to blitz Smith and drop Floyd into coverage, giving a unique, un-scouted look that neither Green Bay nor DeShone Kizer was probably prepared for. Putting Smith on the field with Mack and Floyd gives the Bears’ opponents three quality pass-rushers to account for … and that’s on top of a defensive line that also features Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman (both of whom can win at the point of attack at the line of scrimmage).
Nick Kwiatkoski is a solid rotation linebacker who tends to be strong against the run, but there were moments when he was evidently out-matched as a pass defender. Aaron Rodgers gashed the Bears with crossers over the middle, with whom Kwiatkoski couldn’t keep up. That’s not something a player with Smith’s athleticism (remember, he ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.5s) should have a problem with moving forward.
A front with Hicks, Goldman, Mack, Floyd, and Smith could be formidable and I would very much like to see it. However, helping the Bears win right now is only part of the calculus. There are other, long-term reasons to get Smith in there, and the best one is not very complicated or controversial: experience in a (relatively) low-pressure environment.
As we know from his entire career (and, hell, Sunday alone) Khalil Mack is the real deal. When he’s on the field, he makes everyone around him better and can take charge of an entire defense. Indeed, his mere presence would ease the pressure of a rookie like Smith, who’s still trying to get acclimated to the pro game. If Smith doesn’t have to worry about making the calls in the middle (again, because Mack is out there doing his thing), then using him in this lineup could maximize his abilities as a pure playmaker. In short, Smith can both develop more quickly and rely on his biggest strengths if he’s out there at the right times, with the right personnel, and often enough.
Unfortunately, Smith’s holdout put him behind the 8-ball and in a position where the team had to rely on Kwiatkoski playing more than they probably would have liked, all things considered. But again, that should change going forward. Smith is going to enter the starting lineup sooner or later and will be playing on more than 13 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps. And with an extra day of prep this week (Bears don’t play until Monday), that may come sooner than we might expect.