LAKE FOREST – When a team is rebuilding from basically the ground up, there are rarely any sure things at any position. But throughout the late winter, spring and summer, one position the Bears have had reason to feel pretty good about is linebacker.
Now, it’s still early, however, the NFL jokingly stands for “not for long.”
As we move into the dog days of training camp, Roquan Smith is an unexpected holdout – or “hold in,” as it’s being called these days. Nicholas Morrow has been forced to devote most of his attention to not only learning a new scheme, but also being anointed with the green dot on his helmet and needing to call the defense. Journeymen Matthew Adams and Joe Thomas are filling in at Smith’s WILL linebacker spot and commanding most of the SAM reps with the first-team because of their familiarity with head coach Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 system. We have seen little of promising young linebackers Jack Sanborn, Caleb Johnson and C.J. Avery.
All that said, linebacker has been one of the least impressive positions so far during training camp. Lake Zurich’s Sanborn did get the first interception of training camp, but other than that it has been an awfully slow roll.
Smith is the key moving forward, and there is every reason to believe he’ll be ready by Week 1, but few saw this coming, and even fewer thought it would last this long.
With several of the other notable hold ins across the league – Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson – getting new deals, one would have hoped Smith would be extended by now as well.
It’s still unclear if Smith has an agent. He last spoke publicly during voluntary minicamp in April. General manager Ryan Poles was unwilling to comment on contracts at all when he spoke two weeks ago.
Asked in April if he envisions himself staying with the Bears, Smith said, “Absolutely, yeah. That’s my plan.”
When asked how he felt about the trade of teammate Khalil Mack, Smith added, “At the end of the day, it’s all a business. It sucks seeing one of your guys go, one of the leaders. But, hey, life goes on. I got a lot of respect for him.”
Assuming Smith eventually does sign an extension, it’s not a concern that he won’t be ready physically. He’s been visible every day working out and reportedly participating in meetings. But in shape is one thing, and in football shape is another.
Even more worrisome, he will be learning a new position, switching from inside in a 3-4 to the WILL in the Tampa 2. A few days ago, defensive coordinator Alan Williams explained that the biggest difference is in the view the linebacker has on the field. When he’s in the middle, he can see what’s happening on both sides of the formation.
“When you’re on the outside ... things usually come from the inside out,” Williams said.
Although Smith’s athleticism may lend itself to the new position, the game is going to look totally different to him, and the practice reps he’s missing may be invaluable.
As for Morrow, he’s almost as impressive athletically as Smith and might even pack a bigger punch when he arrives at the ball carrier. But he appears to be a rather quiet, soft-spoken guy. How will the demands of his new responsibilities affect his ability to play fast?
It’s still early – five full weeks until opening day. There is time for this all to work out.
But you don’t want to still be learning from scratch once the season starts. So an inflection point is nearing with Smith’s contract, because nothing gets fixed until he comes back to work.
Hopefully, we’ll see him and Morrow running together sooner rather than later. But it had better happen soon or the entire dynamic between Smith and the Bears, as well as the future at the position, could be irreversibly changed.