Gabriel: How long will it take Roquan Smith to contribute after holdout?

August 17, 2018

Chicago Bears first-round ILB Roquan Smith finally agreed to terms and flew to Chicago on Monday night, ending a 29-day impasse that lasted the duration of the club’s Bourbonnais portion of training camp.

Smith signed his contract and took part in his first camp practice Tuesday at Halas Hall, albeit a mini-camp type of practice with no pads. Smith will have two padded practices in Denver against the Denver Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday, prior to the Bears’ preseason game against the Broncos on Saturday.

Will Smith even play against Denver, and how long will it be before he is actually ready to start and contribute for the Bears?

The first question is easy to answer, and part of the decision will stem from the Bears finding out what kind of condition he is in. Is he ready for contact and is his cardiovascular conditioning up to speed? If both the training staff and strength staff feel he is ready to go, then from a physical standpoint, there is no reason he can’t play at least a few series.

The other question is whether Smith is mentally ready to compete on the field against NFL-caliber competition. Yes, he missed almost a month of training camp, but not before he participated in OTAs and the final minicamp. During the offseason program, much (not all) of the defense was installed, so he should be up to speed as far as terminology and many of his assignments. Will he make mistakes? Sure, but it’s preseason and games don’t count. It’s OK to make mistakes now — that’s how a young player learns how not to repeat those mistakes.

Still, playing a few series in a preseason game is a long ways away from being prepared to play in a regular-season game. In the regular season, a missed assignment can lead to a scoring play by your opponent, which could lead to a loss.

The last time a high draft choice missed as much time in training camp as Smith was in 2016, when third overall pick Joey Bosa, a defensive end missed 31 days. He then pulled a hamstring shortly after reporting to camp and missed the first four games of the regular season. Despite missing the injury-shortened campaign, he still finished the season with 10 ½ sacks and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year.

People can choose to compare Smith to Bosa, but it’s really trying to compare apples to oranges. Bosa plays defensive end and his primary job is to rush the passer. It is easier to play on a side of the field and have one primary responsibility than it is to play in the middle of the defense and read the whole field. It’s two different positions with entirely different sets of responsibilities.

During OTAs, the Bears were planning on Smith wearing the green dot on his helmet and calling defensive signals. That ultimately might be out of the question now, at least for the first part of the season, though Matt Nagy said Tuesday the club’s plans remain unchanged.

But NFL coaches are big on trust. They have to trust that their player is mentally and physically ready to play a game before they will insert him into the starting lineup. Regardless of how talented Smith is, if defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t believe that the rookie is mentally up to speed with the rest of the players at the linebacker position, he won’t start him.

Smith’s competition for the starting spot is third-year man Nick Kwiatkoski. Kwiatkoski was a fourth round pick in 2016 and, though he isn’t close to being the athlete that Smith is, he is a very smart and instinctive player. Kwiatkoski has more size that Smith, and might even be a little more physical. Add that to his instincts, and Kwiatkoski is a player whom the coaches can easily rely on to play if Smith isn’t ready.

Smith was drafted by the Bears because of his unique athleticism. He is very fast, with great anticipation and range allowing him to make plays that many other linebackers can’t. Smith is a true three-down linebacker who can play the run very well, drop into coverage effectively and rush the passer as a blitzer. He doesn’t have the size of some linebackers, but because of his athleticism, Smith is the position’s new breed that every team now seeks.

Nonetheless, the time Smith has missed will hurt him early on, when he might not be totally comfortable doing everything that the Bears coaches desire. Because of that, Smith might be used in a rotation early on so that the Bears coaches can have him do what he does best. As he gains experience and feels more comfortable within the scheme, he will be asked to do more.

Of course this is all conjecture as Smith only has one camp practice under his belt. What happens over the next three weeks will determine how much we see of Smith come Sept. 9 at Lambeau Field.

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