Smith’s all-around play surfaced early on Chicago Bears’ radar
The Bears had been on the trail Georgia ILB Roquan Smith for a long time before they made him the eighth overall pick in the draft Thursday night.
“Probably about midseason,” G.M. Ryan Pace said, when he was asked when Smith first surfaced on the Bears’ radar. “Our scouts had been pounding the table for this guy for a long time. I remember (director of college scouting) Mark Sadowski, during the season talking about him then. His name’s come up a ton, and then, once you meet him, it just kind of cements it for you. He’s just a special person and a special player.”
Pace said it’s easy to see what Smith is as a player. He doesn’t flash with a few highlight plays and then disappear for long stretches. He’s the most complete inside linebacker in the draft, a productive tackler from bench to bench against the run, an effective blitzer and a player with elite speed for the position, who can match up in coverage.
“Every game you watch, he’s just so explosive,” Pace said. “Every game you watch, this guy’s flying around, making plays. We see that in coverage, in a wheel route down the sidelines (covering) a back. He has the speed to run with a tight end or back out of the backfield, the change of direction, and he has the instincts in coverage to feel things around him.”
Smith played football and basketball in high school, and even before he realized it himself, his football coach forecast his future.
“The first half of my high school career I’d tell him, ‘I think I’m a basketball player. I play football, but I want to be a basketball player.’ (But) it was pretty sweet when he said, ‘Son, you’re a football player.’ He was like, ‘Football is going to be your bread and butter.’ Ever since then, I knew football was going to be it.”
One of many things the Bears like about Smith is that he plays his best in the biggest games, like last season’s playoff games including the national title game, even though the Bulldogs lost to Alabama. He was the best defensive player in the Bulldogs’ semifinal victory over Clemson, when he had 11 tackles. Some players fade under the spotlight, but it brings out the best in Smith.
“I definitely love that,” he said. “It’s just more attention on those games. We came up a little short (in the title game), so that kind of stings a little bit. I pretty much did in the title game what I did all year, I showed up. Big games, I tend to show up just like I show up in any other game. I did my same job, and I made plays and tried to put my defense in the best possible situation to succeed.”
Two years ago, the Bears used the ninth overall draft pick on Leonard Floyd, a teammate of Smith’s at Georgia, and he’s anxious to reunite.
“It’s going to be insane,” Smith said. “We’re going to do something special here. I looked up to the guy a lot. He was an older guy, he was a redshirt junior when I was a freshman. It was pretty special to see him go ninth overall to the Chicago Bears. He’s excited to start getting to work again with me.”
With Floyd pressuring quarterbacks off the edge and the rangy Smith making plays sideline to sideline, Vic Fangio’s defense is primed to take another step after finishing 10th last year in total yards allowed.
Inside linebackers aren’t generally considered integral parts of the pass rush, but Smith notched 6.5 sacks last year when used in blitz situations, and Pace believes he has the skill set to contribute on a Bears defense looking for help.
“He’s got such great burst,” Pace said. “He’s such a sudden, twitchy player. He times his blitz really well, and he’s got outstanding burst. He is one of those guys who can just uncoil when he hits, so when he strikes a guy, it’s very impactful. He’s built that way; a thick, sturdy guy, so those things stand out.”