Who wins — Roquan Smith or Ryan Poles? Has the offensive line become a strength? – Reading Eagle

With one preseason game remaining and 53-man roster decisions not far behind, the season is fast approaching for the Chicago Bears.

The Tribune’s Brad Biggs reaches into the mailbag to answer questions about Roquan Smith’s contract situation, Matt Eberflus’ decision to play starters Saturday in Cleveland and — believe it or not — whether the young offensive line is becoming a strength.

Who wins the Roquan Smith situation? Smith or Ryan Poles and the Bears? — Don, Homewood

In this instance, I don’t know if we can — or need to — establish a winner and loser. Smith didn’t get the lucrative multiyear extension he was seeking. The Bears were unable to sign arguably their best player beyond the 2022 season, and it’s possible they will be back in a similar situation in March if they use the franchise tag. I don’t know how realistic that possibility is, and Smith has a chance to become a big winner if he has a blockbuster season. If the move to weak-side linebacker in the Tampa-2 scheme allows Smith to be more of a playmaker than he was in the 3-4 defense, he could enhance his value to the Bears or as a free agent.

The Bears will pay him $9.735 million this season, making Smith a relative bargain, and he’s gambling that he can earn a bigger and better contract than the one the team presented in negotiations this month. There’s a chance both sides will be winners in the long run. There’s a chance Smith will be the loser if he plays poorly or suffers a serious injury. There’s a chance the Bears will have his services for only one more season. There are too many variables to predict a winner at this point, and Smith’s performance will define which direction this goes.

I thoroughly believe Roquan Smith got the hint that he needs to man up or not get paid. Also, he thinks too much of himself that other teams aren’t willing to take the money risk nor is he worth it. Reality check. Thoughts on the Bears just tagging him next year and see what happens? — @howardmonroe11

Jeez. If you don’t think he’s worth the money he was seeking — and neither of us knows what that figure was — are you really revved up by the idea of the Bears using the franchise tag on him in 2023, which wouldn’t necessarily lead to a long-term agreement? The possibility of a trade — which Smith introduced in a statement to NFL Media — was never a strong one in my mind. I don’t think there is “risk” with Smith. He’s respected around the league for being an excellent player. The issue in my mind is positional value. Off-the-ball linebackers aren’t the final pieces teams looking to get over the top usually add.

I realize folks will want to speculate on Smith’s future on a weekly basis. Will the Bears try to re-sign him? Will general manager Ryan Poles use the franchise tag? Is Smith playing his final season in a Bears uniform? Will he earn more money after a season in Matt Eberflus’ defense? Here’s what I can tell you right now: Smith will earn $9.735 million this season, and the franchise tag for linebackers in 2023 is estimated to be $20.5 million, according to Joel Corry, a former agent who writes extensively about contracts and the salary cap for CBS Sports. If the Bears were willing to pay Smith $20.5 million a year right now, I figure a deal would have been struck.

Will Smith hold that kind of value after this season? Your guess is as good as mine. There’s a lot of football to be played before anyone has to make any decisions.

Why do we not ever see short-term, high-dollar bridge contracts for young star players? Is, for example, a two-year, high-dollar deal realistic for a player like Roquan Smith? Allows for some consistency for the Bears and allows for another good payday down the line for the player. — @mosconml

You see that from time to time. A handful of big-play wide receivers signed three-year contracts recently, including Deebo Samuel of the San Francisco 49ers, DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks and Terry McLaurin of the Washington Commanders. Let’s not confuse these for small deals, though. All three will average more than $23 million per season in their new deals. Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams also got a three-year extension that averages nearly $27 million.

The primary attraction for these players, especially the first three, is the reason you cite. It gives them a chance to get back to the bargaining table and get another huge contract if they continue to perform. This follows a pattern Larry Fitzgerald started years ago with the Arizona Cardinals when his agent, the late Eugene Parker, negotiated shorter deals. Fitzgerald had confidence he would remain an elite player and instead of locking himself in at a rate with a longer five- or six-year contract, he opted for shorter deals to allow him to negotiate more regularly as the market grew.

Teams also prefer longer deals because they allow for salary-cap flexibility by pushing money into future years. Some players who have played at a high level for a sustained period — and Smith has done that — want the payday that comes with a guarantee in a longer contract. Obviously, there would be a lot more guaranteed money in a five-year contract than a three-year deal. I can see both sides of this.

Remember when Matt Nagy wouldn’t let any starters play in ANY preseason games? Talk about philosophical differences. This is a good thing. — @huskies714

I hear what you’re saying, and one can argue for playing starters in the preseason or resting them. You know who sat the vast majority of his starters in the preseason last summer? Rams coach Sean McVay — and he did so with a quarterback who was new to his team and system. Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley also kept quarterback Justin Herbert, entering his second season, under wraps last summer. So it works both ways.

The risk is the Bears could lose a key player to an injury. That hasn’t happened in the final preseason game in some time, but No. 2 running back Kevin Jones suffered a season-ending foot injury in the final exhibition game in 2009 and talented left guard Rex Tucker suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason finale at New England in 2003. The Bears did suffer a couple of significant losses in the third preseason game in 2017 in Nashville, Tenn., where wide receiver Cameron Meredith and long snapper Patrick Scales tore ACLs. It was a career-altering injury for Meredith.

Hopefully the Bears will leave Cleveland healthy Saturday night after Matt Eberflus said starters, including quarterback Justin Fields and weak-side linebacker Roquan Smith, will play the bulk of the first half.

“It’s a lot of things,” Eberflus said. “It’s establishing your identity, establishing your style of play, the effort we give, the execution we give, situational football, third down, if we get a two-minute drive, how we operate in the gold zone. All of those things that come into play that are good football. We want to play a good, clean operation and be aggressive in our style and aggressive in our approach. So that’s what we’ll be looking for.”

Good health is also something the Bears are seeking, but Eberflus is willing to risk it for the above benefits.

How concerning are the injuries at nickel back with Tavon Young and Thomas Graham Jr.? Do you see the team carrying both if they’re not ready for the opener? Depth gets very sketchy beyond Kyler Gordon if they’re out or cut. — @jtbarczak

Gordon looks like the first choice to play nickel, and it might be a question of whether he also plays on the outside. I don’t know if the situations involving Young and Graham are as concerning to the team as they are to the individuals. In other words, both players missed so much time in training camp that they haven’t been able to push for a job. I doubt both Young and Graham would make the team even if both were healthy. Matt Eberflus had said very little about Young until Tuesday, when he said the veteran has been dealing with a lower leg injury. Graham suffered a hamstring injury at the outset of training camp.

Undrafted rookie Jaylon Jones has made the most of opportunities at nickel, and DeAndre Houston-Carson could fill in there if needed. This roster is such that I would focus more on front-line players than depth. How the Bears make cuts in the secondary will be interesting, I will grant you that.

With the first offensive line seemingly set, are you more comfortable this season or last on how the line will play? — @pauliuskase

Whoa. I would not use “set” to describe the offensive line. What are we basing this on? The offensive starters had a nice drive for a field goal last week in Seattle and didn’t get any traction in three possessions during the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. The coaching staff hasn’t announced anything is set in terms of starters, and I believe we need to see regular-season action unfold to judge how the group and individuals are playing and if the team is making progress in the trenches.

Fifth-round pick Braxton Jones is getting every opportunity to win the left tackle job. Larry Borom, who started eight games as a rookie last season, is lining up with the starters at right tackle. I’m curious if they are potentially competing against each other for a starting job and if veteran Riley Reiff will slide in at one tackle spot when the season begins. Reiff hasn’t played in the preseason, but he has played a ton on both sides during 10 previous seasons. It very well could be the Bears would love to see Jones and Borom start the season and see how they play from there. Teven Jenkins is in the early stages of settling in at right guard.

We could each make a declaration about what the line will look like this season, but based off what? It’s apparent the Bears want to give young players an opportunity, and remember that center Lucas Patrick should be back from his broken right thumb at some point in September. This group definitely has a chance to be better than a year ago. But it has to play the games, and the real question is how much better. It’s a low bar to clear.

Is it possible that the offensive line went from a large question mark to an exciting and young strength? — @mstrclean

Whoa! The offensive line is definitely young, especially if Riley Reiff and Michael Schofield are not in the starting lineup. A strength? There’s no reason to put a ceiling on young players such as Braxton Jones, Larry Borom, Teven Jenkins and even Sam Mustipher, but it’s a major leap of faith to say one of the worst offensive lines in the league has turned into a strength without a major investment. The only significant free agent the Bears signed is center Lucas Patrick, who got a two-year, $8 million contract. With the exception of Reiff, who has been working with the second team lately, all of the other additions are basically minimum-contract buys or rookies drafted on Day 3. Then you have young guys in Borom and Jenkins. Odds are the Bears will wind up pleased with some of them and some won’t pan out.

I don’t want to cast doubt on a group we haven’t seen play in the regular season, but I also don’t think you should leap to the idea of this suddenly being a strength of the roster. If GM Ryan Poles, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and line coach Chris Morgan are really pleased with three of the five spots after this season, that’s a win to me. If one of them happens to be Jones at left tackle, that’s even better. If four players are at a level where the team identifies them as part of the future, it’s a huge victory. Let’s see them play.

Are you concerned with Jaquan Brisker’s injury? Is he a lock to be out there Sept. 11? — @just_acy

Brisker injured his right hand in the preseason opener against the Chiefs. He underwent surgery last week, and while Matt Eberflus offered no timeline on a return for the rookie strong safety, there’s a decent chance he will be back for Week 1 against the 49ers.

A lock? None of us is a lock for Week 1, but it’s better that Brisker was injured in Week 1 of the preseason than during the regular season and we’ve seen defensive backs play with protection for hands and wrists. It might be a little easier for a safety than a cornerback, who needs both hands to jam and redirect wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. If Brisker does miss time, I wouldn’t expect him to be out for long, and he looked terrific leading into the Chiefs game. He could have a very good first season.

At this point in their careers, how do Brian Urlacher and Roquan Smith compare? — Joe, Minford, Ohio

Not many young linebackers will start their careers in the same manner Urlacher did, so it can be an unfair comparison. Smith has enjoyed a fine start to his career, but it’s fair to say he hasn’t been on the same trajectory.

Urlacher was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000, was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2001 (losing out to Michael Strahan of the New York Giants) and was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons. He also was selected as an All-Pro in two of his first four seasons before winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2005, his sixth season. Urlacher was a foundational piece for more than a decade of success for the Bears defense with a rare combination of size and range in the middle of the field and instincts that quickly improved as he gained experience.

Smith has been a very good player for the Bears, but you can’t say he has transformed the defense. He’s only 25 and the hope is his skill set will make even more of an impact in Matt Eberflus’ defense. If he does take a step forward, some accolades ought to come his way. Smith has yet to play in a Pro Bowl, even as an alternate, and has been a second-team All-Pro twice. He was tied for sixth in voting at inside linebacker for the 2020 season and was in a three-way tie for fourth last year.

Statistically, Urlacher’s first four seasons were a notch above.

  • Games: Urlacher 64, Smith 61
  • Solo tackles: Urlacher 392, Smith 348
  • Assists: Urlacher 118, Smith 176
  • Interceptions: Urlacher 6, Smith 5
  • Pass deflections: Urlacher 24, Smith 17
  • Forced fumbles: Urlacher 4, Smith 1
  • Fumble recoveries: Urlacher 4, Smith 1
  • Sacks: Urlacher 21, Smith 14
  • Touchdowns: Urlacher 1, Smith 1

Urlacher almost immediately joined the upper echelon of linebackers, and many considered him and Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens the best in the league for a good stretch of his career. Smith hasn’t been put in that class by national observers to this point.

Will Ryan Poles be in the market for a wide receiver? — @steveo1934

It would be misleading to say the Bears will be on the lookout for one specific position or a handful of positions. This roster is far from set, and all teams, not just those in the early stages of rebuilding, scour the waiver wire for names that intrigue them. Poles would be open to a move that can boost the depth chart at any position, not just wide receiver. I’m sure the Bears will keep an eye out for wide receivers, but they really like Darnell Mooney and when Byron Pringle returns from a quadriceps injury, I think they view him as a No. 2 or No. 3 option in the offense. Equanimeous St. Brown and rookie Velus Jones also are players the Bears want to see contribute.

So I don’t think Poles would import a player the team has a similar grade on because they want to see these guys have a chance to perform. If a player becomes available whom they view as a clear upgrade, certainly a move makes sense. But just because a player with name recognition is on the street doesn’t mean the Bears would have interest. The last thing Poles wants to do is potentially block the development or growth of a young player. A big part of this season will be finding out which players on the roster can help in the future. Those answers become most clear when players get real game action.

Do you see there being a lot of change with this roster as cuts come? What about the trade market? — @thevenerablev

It’s never surprising when you have a total regime change and see a flurry of roster moves leading into and immediately after the cutdown date. Obviously any moves after the Aug. 30 reduction to a 53-man roster would be to acquire players who were cut loose by other teams. But it’s impossible to predict because no one knows who will be available. If the Bears made three or four moves between, say, Aug. 30 and Sept. 2, I would not be surprised.

As far as trades go, what do the Bears have to offer? It’s easy to say, “Hey, this guy might be able to help the team.” But what does Ryan Poles have to trade? I imagine he would be selective when it comes to trading future draft picks. He doesn’t want to give one up unless he knows there’s a high probability the player he’s acquiring might be an asset.

Is it possible the Bears carry four running backs on the roster? Trestan Ebner and Darrynton Evans are both playing well, but is it worth holding on to both? — @gavinsmyth99

I would be surprised if the Bears kept four running backs on the 53-man roster, and that likely would rule out a fullback if they did. There simply aren’t enough carries or passes out of the backfield to justify carrying four backs. Ebner has looked pretty good to me, and considering he was a draft pick by the new regime, he rates the edge over Evans, who was claimed off waivers from the Tennessee Titans in the offseason. I think Ebner makes it behind David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert.

Now that training camp has concluded, how would you compare the experience for fans at Halas Hall to what the team held in Bourbonnais for nearly two decades? — Aaron, Huntley

The Bears have run three training camps at Halas Hall, the first in 2020 without fans because of COVID-19 restrictions. The sense I get is the team is very happy with how the event has evolved the last two years. Crowds are considerably smaller than they were in Bourbonnais because of space restrictions at their facility versus what was available at Olivet Nazarene University. But the Bears made 11 practices open to the general public this summer, more than some teams have these days. There were also multiple days when general admission was not available but the team hosted large groups such as Sunday’s practice for military members and first responders.

Admission is free and the process is smooth to transport fans from parking at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills to Halas Hall. There’s a large fan experience area at the entrance and autograph sessions on some days for children. Temporary bleachers offer good sightlines and really maximize space. They actually pack in more people for camp — a little more than 1,500 per day — than you would think the space would hold.

From a football standpoint, the team is thrilled to be able to remain at its state-of-the-art facility and not head off elsewhere. The Bears believe this gives them an advantage during the three-week period over moving to a college campus. The team can continue to fine-tune the event annually, but the Bears put considerable energy into making it a positive experience for fans.


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