by Evan Bruner
Chicago Bears star linebacker Roquan Smith requested a trade early Tuesday morning, citing the lack of extension talks with his current team for his desire to play elsewhere. As Smith is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract, his future in Chicago appears to have more questions than answers.
Ever since he was drafted eighth overall in 2018, Smith has been one of the premier players in the league at his position. He’s registered over 100 total tackles in each of his four seasons in the NFL and is coming off a career-high 163 in 2021. Smith’s strong performance on the field hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. He was named second-team all-pro in 2020 and 2021. A productive 25-year-old linebacker that’s widely regarded as one of the best in the league may seem like a no-brainer to extend, but things aren’t that simple.
To get a better idea of what Smith’s asking price might be, we can take a look at recent contracts given to star linebackers. Last offseason, Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers and Shaquille Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts signed five-year extensions with their teams, with Warner making $95 million and Leonard getting $99.2 million. With the salary cap moving up about $26 million from 2021, teams now have more money to field at a team, which likely means the contract Smith is seeking exceeds that of both Leonard and Warner.
Multiple sources have reported that Smith is looking for $110 million over five years, which would make him the highest-paid linebacker in league history. While the Bears have the cap space to make it work, they should be hesitant to throw out a record-breaking sum on a linebacker who’s yet to make his first Pro Bowl.
One of the hardest things to do in sports is differentiate very good players from great ones. As talented and productive as Smith has been in his time in Chicago, there are still a handful of linebackers that most consider to be better than him. Along with the aforementioned Warner and Leonard, reigning defensive rookie of the year, Micah Parsons and Tampa Bay’s Devin White were all ranked above Smith in a poll given to NFL executives, players, and coaches in July.
I’m not suggesting that Smith isn’t deserving of a sizable contract; I’m just pointing out that his past accomplishments and current standing in the league don’t exactly scream “record-breaking contract.” Overpaying star players is widely seen as a necessary evil in this league, but the Bears appear to be in the early stages of a rebuild, more willing to sacrifice short-term value for long-term upside. This is the best reasoning for why the team was willing to part ways with Khalil Mack, Akeim Hicks, and Allen Robinson.
While Smith is younger than any of those guys, we could see a similar principle come into play. If General Manager Ryan Poles believes committing $22 million annually to a linebacker could interfere with his rebuild, he might be inclined to move Smith in hopes of acquiring more draft capital.
At the end of the day, both sides want a deal. Smith’s trade request seems to stem directly from financial issues rather than personal ones, and the Bears’ front office undoubtedly wants to keep one of their few established players on either side of the ball. The ultimate question is whether either side is willing to compromise. This decision will not only have major implications on the Bears 2022 season, but on the foreseeable future of Chicago Bears football.