In his first NFL training camp, Roquan Smith dazzled as often as any Bears player not named Khalil Mack. Matt Nagy might have held only one live tackling drill in Bourbonnais, but Smith was constantly around the football and looked like a unique, deadly weapon armed vs. backs and tight ends in coverage.
It makes sense, then, that when new ILB coach Mark DeLeone was asked before the preseason opener what the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft must do to build on a rookie season that ended with him as the leading tackler on the NFL’s top defense, he said, matter-of-factly, just stay the course.
“I think he’s taking those steps, and what we really need to do now is play some games and let him play and get better every day. I think he’s doing that right now.”
Smith’s first NFL preseason action Thursday night: five snaps on the opening series, including a solo tackle to create second-and-medium and a sack off an A-gap blitz, setting up third-and-forever. Like that, the Bears were off the field and Smith's night — like his skill set — was complete.
Of course, the Bears believed they were getting a complete defender last year in making Smith the earliest off-ball linebacker drafted since 2012, when the Carolina Panthers spent the ninth overall pick on former Defensive MVP and likely future Hall of Famer Luke Kuechly.
But, as DeLeone told us last week, being a truly complete linebacker means more than stuffing ball carriers, stacking tackles, sacking quarterbacks and sticking with pass catchers in space; it’s about bringing unbridled energy to the field — whether practice or game — each and every time one steps on it. And Smith and veteran running mate Danny Trevathan check that box, too, same as DeLeone’s previous star pupil, Kansas City Chiefs all-time tackling leader Derrick Johnson.
"What was so special about Derrick Johnson is he had fun playing every day — he loved playing football,” DeLeone said. “When I watch Danny [Trevathan] and Roquan, those two guys have the same passion that DJ has. That’s what made DJ special. And to be a great player in this game for a long time, you have to love the game, and those guys do that."
We understand if it sounds like a well-worn cliche. However, if Bears GM Ryan Pace is going to open training camp by citing his team's culture as the No. 1 reason he believes its arrow remains pointed up, cliche or not, it obviously matters greatly in the types of players he covets.
Trevathan was coming off a Super Bowl season during which he was a team captain and the Denver Broncos' leading tackler when Pace signed him. Smith was the Butkus Award winner in his final season at Georgia. And as the central hub of the NFL's best defense, the pair oozes that energy and helps embody the culture Pace has carefully cultivated.
"And if you don’t have energy and you don’t have juice and you don’t have passion, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb and probably not going to be around long," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said in the spring of his new team's culture.
Pagano was asked specifically last week about the effect Khalil Mack's football character has on his Bears teammates, but he also singled out Trevathan in his response. And considering Smith was drafted, albeit a few months before the acquisition of Mack, to be the future face of the Bears defense, we think it applies well to him, too.
“The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack is what we say," he said. "If he’s out front and he’s going 1,000 miles an hour, 96 [Akiem Hicks] is doing it, Danny Trevathan’s doing it, Eddie Jackson’s doing it in the back, everybody else is going, ‘OK, that guy is the No. 3 player voted by peers in the National Football League and he’s doing that?’
"They’re not going to do anything but give you great effort. So that leadership, that accountability, that ownership, is phenomenal. Those guys take over the team like they have and they control the effort and all that, and we don’t have to come out here and spend our time coaching that, that’s the beauty of it. You can sit there and coach football.”