Six days ago, Roquan Smith shed tears during an interview after being asked about the Bears’ decision to trade away one of their defensive leaders in Robert Quinn. Yesterday, he fell to the same fate as his former teammate, as Chicago traded him to the Ravens for second and fifth-round selections in the upcoming draft. While the move initially seemed like the front office had little hope for the team to make any noise in the playoff race this season, they threw cold water on that take when they traded their second-round selection for Steelers pass-catcher Chase Claypool.
Trading Smith was not a move that Chicago had to make. They have over $130 million to work with in the offseason. and he is a premier off-the-ball linebacker (who also happened to be their best player). However, that did not change the fact that they did not see him in their long-term plans. They decided it would be best to get something for him while he was still under contract. It’s a move that hurts (like a lot) in the short term but could wind up being better for the squad in the long run. Like any blockbuster trade, there are clear positives and negatives on each side of the deal.
Why the move makes sense for Chicago:
The writing was on the wall as soon as Smith requested a trade in the offseason, as players rarely stick around for an extended period after making such a demand. Ryan Poles had little hope the two sides would come to an agreement, and he moved Smith while he still could.
He was dealt one day before the Bears traded for Claypool, as that was the new regime’s first big swing to help the development of second-year signal-caller Justin Fields. The Bears still have ample draft capital (eight picks) due to recouping a second-round selection with the Smith deal, as they essentially moved Smith for the pass-catcher, linebacker A.J. Klein, and a fifth-round selection. The Bears may be robbing Peter to pay Paul with these moves, but they clearly show the front office recognizes the importance of fielding a modern-day offense.
The linebacker might be lighting up the stat sheets this year (he currently leads the league in tackles with 83), but he has been inconsistent in Chicago’s new one-gap system. He has occasionally gotten caught out of position in the ground game and is partially responsible for their struggles to corral opposing running backs. Smith has proven he can still play at a high level but has also played some of the worst ball of his career early in the season.
The devaluation of the off-the-ball linebacker position is another factor that made Smith expendable in Chicago. Most of the game’s elite sideline-to-sideline threats, including Fred Warner, Darius Leonard, and Bobby Wagner, were drafted after the first round, and the bust rate for ‘backers is lower than it is for other positions.
While the Bears may have made their defense worse with the move, they at least ensured the middle linebacker spot won’t be a complete liability with the addition of Klein, who has started 81 games over his ten-year career. Undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn also might get a shot to compete for the position, as he flashed a nose for the football during the preseason, and there is little risk in seeing if he can become a contributor going forward.
Why they should have kept Smith:
Ideally, you would have liked to see the Bears get more out of the two-time All-Pro. He has more than lived up to the expectations since being selected eighth overall in 2018, and they will be hard-pressed to replace his overall impact with the compensation they received. While it is possible to land a high-end linebacker in the second round, those players are not exactly easy to come by. Poles’ will need to strike gold once again to justify the move, which would be asking a lot out of any new general manager.
Taking the Claypool trade into consideration, the Bears would have had an easier time finding an elite receiver in the second round than an elite linebacker. Every class seems to produce quality pass-catchers who fall through the cracks despite possessing every trait necessary to succeed. Chicago could have stuck with their patient approach and attacked the position in the offseason, as they also have ample cap space to make a run at a big name in free agency.
Smith may have been more inconsistent this year, but he still looked like one of the game’s top linebackers for most of the season. The Bears are in a position where they lack high-end talent, and Smith was one of the few players the team could count on to wreck opponents on game day. There is no telling how the defense will perform without the 25-year-old calling the signals, but it is fair to say there will be a significant drop-off in play at the position.
When you have a top-five player at his position, you do everything you can to keep him. While money is always a factor in these breakups, the Bears failed to find common ground and work through these negotiations. Smith will surely continue to thrive in Baltimore, where he will be the perfect player in the middle of their two-gap defense.
All things considered, it makes sense that Chicago felt the need to allocate more resources to the offense but trading away a key defensive piece might not have been the best way to do it. The Bears still receive a passing grade for getting something out of a player they would have likely lost in free agency, but it is not as good of a move as it could have been with the compensation they received.