The Chicago Bears are gearing up for what could be a trying NFL season. The team has a new general manager and a new head coach and will be installing a new system for second-year quarterback Justin Fields to run after a rough rookie campaign.
The defense already parted ways with a superstar in Khalil Mack earlier in the offseason, could be forced to trade another Pro Bowler because of Robert Quinn's unhappiness and is now dealing with a holdout from its top linebacker after NFL insider Ian Rapoport reported that Roquan Smith will not be participating in training camp until his contract situation is sorted.
Expectations in the Windy City were already low, but the Bears must find a way to amicably end Smith's holdout to stop them from hitting rock bottom. It should be a top priority for this squad if it wishes to have any chance at success in 2022.
Smith is arguably the best player on Chicago's roster. He's played in 61 games since being drafted No. 8 overall in 2018, racking up 524 tackles, 17 pass defenses, 14 sacks and five interceptions in that span.
While Smith has yet to earn a Pro Bowl nod, he was named a second-team All-Pro the past two seasons and has evolved into one of the surest tacklers in football.
Smith had a missed tackle rate of just 3.6 percent this past year, his lowest mark yet and made more impressive by the fact that it came during a season in which he set a career high in tackles.
Last season, Smith became the first player since Ray Lewis to record 300 or more tackles and 30 or more tackles for a loss within a two-season span. Many of Smith's contributions don't show up on the stat sheet, either.
CBS Sports' Aaron Leming highlighted the linebacker's willingness to attend voluntary team activities and be a public-facing representative for the franchise.
Given Smith only turned 25 years old back in April, there should be plenty of tread left on his tires and his best seasons are likely still to come.
He's going into the final year of his rookie deal after the Bears picked up his fifth-year option and is set to make $9.7 million for the 2022 campaign, but Smith is clearly seeking some long-term stability with a contract extension.
The two sides appear to be far apart on what they feel is a fair value for this next deal, as Rapoport noted Smith hasn't received an offer he would "remotely consider" from the club yet.
It was only a few months ago that Smith stated he was "confident" the contract situation would get taken care of this offseason. With August nearly here, time is now running out for that deal to get done.
Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times believes this could be a test for new Bears GM Ryan Poles, who just took over the job back in January and has yet to negotiate a contract as important to the team as Smith's.
Smith isn't a stranger to holding out. He missed the entirety of training camp his rookie season during a 29-day holdout over language in his rookie contract, becoming the very last of the 256 players drafted in 2018 to sign after the two sides finally reached a compromise.
The linebacker parted ways with the CAA agents who assisted in his rookie deal some time ago. It's unclear if he will be negotiating his next contract alone or will be hiring new representation to assist with the process during his current holdout.
Regardless, Chicago has plenty of cap room. Spotrac estimates the club is currently $19 million under the cap, giving it more available finances than all but four other franchises.
It will likely take something close to the $20 million in average annual value to get Smith to sign. That is how much Indianapolis Colts star Darius Leonard received when he worked out his new deal last year, a comparable talent from the 2018 draft class who has established himself as one of the NFL's top off-ball linebackers.
While it's certainly not a cheap deal—only five interior linebackers currently make even $10 million annually—it's one the Bears must be willing to give in exchange for stability at a time when the organization needs it.
There are almost certainly going to be growing pains this coming season even if a deal for Smith gets hammered out soon.
Fields only showed glimpses of the talent that made the Bears cough up an additional first-rounder to move up the board to take him last year. He finished the year with more interceptions than touchdowns and had a concerning 11.8 percent sack rate on his dropbacks.
The defense is likely to take a step back without Mack, who had notched 36 sacks during his four seasons with the Bears before being traded to the Los Angeles Chargers back in March. Quinn is coming off a monster 18.5-sack campaign but is a key candidate to be traded soon as he looks to catch on with a contender at age 32.
With so much working against the Bears, this team is one of the most likely to end up with the No. 1 overall pick in 2023.
It's going to take some time for Chicago to exit this rebuild and emerge as a contender, but getting a multiyear extension for Smith done needs to be the top priority now.