Bears linebacker Roquan Smith (58) tackles Bills tight end Logan Thomas.

Timothy T. Ludwig/USA Today Sports

Gabriel: Roquan Smith Transforming Bears' Defense

In a strong start, the rookie Smith is showcasing improvement each week.

Greg Gabriel
November 13, 2018 - 12:59 pm

(670 The Score) Inside/middle linebackers aren't often drafted in the top 10. That's because of how the NFL has evolved stylistically and how it has changed the burden of such players. Nowadays, inside linebackers often come off the field in sub-packages so that a defense can have better coverage defenders on the field.

Beyond that, the recent history of inside linebackers has been spotty. Dating back to the NFL Draft in 2008, only four inside linebackers have been selected. Two of those selections worked out, while two were busts. The Patriots took Jerod Mayo at No. 10 in 2008 and he became a two-time Pro Bowler before injuries cut short his career. In 2012, the Panthers took Luke Kuechly at No. 9, and he's gone on to become arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL.

In between, the Seahawks took Aaron Curry at No. 4 in 2009 and the Raiders selected Rolando McClain at No. 8 in 2010. Neither panned out, and it reminded executives that receiving commensurate success from an inside linebacker at a premium draft position is difficult.

That may have changed with the Bears' selection of Georgia’s Roquan Smith at No. 8 overall past April. Smith has been impressive, as he's the Bears' leading tackler and quickly becoming a vital part of their defense.

The 21-year-old Smith had a rocky training camp because of a contract dispute and a hamstring injury but has since overcome those hurdles. He was inserted into the starting lineup for Week 2 and has displayed improvement with each passing week.

Smith does just about everything well. At 6-foot, 235 pounds, he's not a big linebacker, but he's quick, fast, athletic and explosive. Smith's quickness also allows him to elude blocks, and he's good at shedding blocks when a foe does get to him. Those qualities lead to him having outstanding range and the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline.

Smith struggled in man coverage at times early in the season, but he has always been good in zone coverage. Smith has also improved as in man coverage and matches up well against opposing running backs. His ball skills and ability to plant and drive on a play are superb. Now nine games into the season, I believe Smith has exceeded the expectations the Bears coaching staff had for him.

Smith and fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan are similar players and and give the Bears arguably the fastest set of inside linebackers in the NFL. Because of that skill set, they seldom come off the field.

Just more than halfway through the season, Smith has established himself as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Chargers safety Derwin James is the early favorite for that award, as he got off to an outstanding start and has 64 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception in nine games. Smith has 64 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in nine games.

Smith is making a charge, putting up his biggest numbers as of late. With the Bears (6-3) hosting the Vikings (5-3-1) in front of a national television audience Sunday night, Smith will have the opportunity to turn more heads and garner more acclaim on a bigger stage.

Bears fans already know how good Smith is. Soon, the rest of the football landscape will as well.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.​​​​