The Bears were in good position on Thursday to add a solid playmaker to their roster with the 8th pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
General manager Ryan Pace feels the Bears got that with the selection of Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith.
“To come away with one of the top defensive players in the draft,” Pace said after the selection, “SEC defensive player of the year, Butkus Award winner, we’re fired up. The whole draft room’s excited. The whole building’s excited.”
I concur. And I share in Pace’s eternal excitement, about which he speaks so frequently.
The Bears really couldn’t have gone wrong should they have chosen to address any of their needs. But in Smith, the Bears have added an athletic, every-down player who continues to bolster the youth movement on the defensive side of the ball and can be a cornerstone piece for years to come.
Roquan Smith’s selection met with mostly positive reviews
Most of Bears Nation — the collection of fans, media, and team personnel — roundly supported the selection of Smith at Pick 8.
It’s hard to look down upon selecting one of the finest defensive players in the draft, and one of the highest-graded prospects. Smith was one of the best players from one of the top college football programs in the nation.
But for those who seemed unhappy with the choice, the criticisms boiled down to just two collective complaints: he seems undersized, and the Bears had other “greater” needs.
Allow me to address both complaints, in reverse order.
Did Bears have more pressing needs?
Had the Bears entered the 2018 season with Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski, I think they could have survived. But why survive when you can thrive?
An argument can be made that the Bears have more pressing needs at outside linebacker and offensive line, and some still aren’t settled with what they have at the receiver position.
But from where the Bears were positioned at Pick 8, Smith offered the best value.
Sure, adding a pass rusher is always going to be one of my top priorities, even when you think you’re pretty solid at the position. Next to quarterback, a pass rusher is the most important position to fill on a football team.
With that in mind, understand that the depth at the “edge” position — the hybrid combination of outside linebackers and defensive ends — is a lot deeper than the top tier inside linebackers.
As it currently stands after the first round of the draft, a collection of capable pass rushers remains available.
The Bears preempted an urgent need at inside linebacker
While there might have been more pressing needs in the interim, the Bears jumped out ahead of what could have been an urgent problem in the near future.
The Bears lost a pair of inside linebackers this offseason in Jerrell Freeman and Christian Jones — although the latter’s versatility allowed him to play outside, too. When Freeman and Trevathan both missed time due to injuries — and in the case of Freeman, suspension, too — Jones and Kwiatkoski were thrust into action last year.
Take heed: just because Kwiatkoski has starter’s experience does not mean he is a reliable NFL starting linebacker. And although he might be listed as a starter in some off-season depth charts, Smith likely will start alongside Trevathan on Day 1 of the 2018 NFL season.
Kwiatkoski is best suited as a special teams player and a valuable reserve inside ‘backer. And Trevathan has yet to play a full season in his two years in Chicago. He’s 28 years old and has two years remaining on the four-year contract he signed in 2016.
The Bears are one high-ankle sprain away from having a gaping hole in the middle of their defense — how does anybody not see that as a potential disaster, and the selection of Smith as filling a need?
Roquan Smith’s size is hardly a detriment
The other argument being made by critics of the pick is that Smith is a bit undersized. Listed at 6-1, 236 pounds, he’s the same height and only four pounds lighter than the playing weight at which Patrick Willis was listed.
The former San Francisco 49ers linebacker thrived under current Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Some want to question whether Smith is a good fit for Fangio’s scheme, but Pace certainly thinks so.
“This is one of Vic’s top players,” Pace said of Smith on Friday night.
“Every game you watch, he’s just so explosive,” Pace added. “This guy’s flying around, making plays. In today’s NFL, the linebackers are becoming more and more of this. Sometimes you might sacrifice a little bit of size to gain a lot of athleticism and a lot of speed, and Roquan definitely has that.”
Roquan Smith is a plug-and-play football player
What makes Smith such a great pick is that he’s a guy who will be ready to play on Day 1. Just take him out of the box, stick him onto the field, and watch him make some plays.
Does that mean he’s flawless? No, of course not. Every player has some adjustments to work on when making the transition from college to the pros. But one of the advantages of taking a player from a big-time college football program like Georgia is that he’s faced some of the top competition in the country. The NFL’s competition level is obviously greater, but it makes the transition easier.
While the Bears still need help on the edge, it’s difficult to pass up on a guy with such range and mobility.
“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.”
The great thing about Fangio is that he’s a terrific chess player when it comes to his defense. He gives offenses different looks and he is able to take a square peg, saw off the edges, and fit him into the round hole that is his defense.
And with a guy like Smith, who has terrific instincts and can read-and-react with the best of them, one can understand why Pace and the Bears were enamored with him.
“The first thing that comes to mind is his instincts, his play speed and his physicality,” Pace said. “I mean, he hits with impact. Those are things that jump out.
“Our scouts had been pounding the table for this guy for a long time.”