It was already shaping up to be a long season for fans of the Chicago Bears. The team is coming off a six-win campaign and possesses (on paper) arguably the NFL's most punchless offense. In the last set of NFL Power Rankings here at Bleacher Report, the Bears checked in 15th in the NFC and 30th overall.
Well, as the saying goes, "Things are never so bad they can't be made worse." That's what happened in the Windy City on Tuesday, when maybe the best player on the roster requested a trade.
Losing inside linebacker Roquan Smith would be a major short-term blow on the field, but it's also a trade that could land the rebuilding Bears some high-end draft capital. If the 25-year-old is hellbent on leaving town, the next step for both player and team is figuring out who is interested enough in Smith to make trading him worthwhile—and what they might be willing to give up.
With Smith heading into the fifth and final season of his rookie contract, there has been no shortage of rumblings about the negotiations on an extension. On July 26, new Bears general manager Ryan Poles tried to put a positive spin on negotiations with Smith while speaking to reporters:
"My feelings for Roquan don't change at all. I love the player and the person. And that won't change. The one thing I'll ask everyone here, I know I'm going to get a lot of questions and I get it. I'm just not going to talk about contracts and all that, so I wanted to just make sure we addressed it though. In terms of my feelings for him, nothing changes."
But things were apparently anything but positive given the scathing statement Smith penned Tuesday.
"The new front office regime doesn't value me here. They've refused to negotiate in good faith, every step of this journey has been 'take it or leave it'. The deal sent to me is one that would be bad for myself, and for the entire LB market if I signed it. I've been trying to get something done that's fair since April, but their focus has been on trying to take advantage of me.
"I wanted to be a Bear for my entire career, help this team bring a (Super Bowl) back to our city. However, they have left me no choice than to request a trade that allows me to play for an organization that truly values what I bring to the table."
To be fair, he left the door open for the relationship to be mended, and it's possible Smith (who has no agent) is trying to gain leverage via public support. But at face value, his statement says, "Get me out of here."
Losing Smith would be a massive hit for a team that can't afford those this year if it's even going to feign competitiveness. Smith has topped 100 total tackles in all four of his professional seasons, adding 14 sacks and five interceptions. Last year, he was fifth in the league with 163 total tackles and had a passer rating against in coverage of just 76.8.
Athlon Sports ranked Smith its No. 7 linebacker last month, noting:
"While he can roam sideline to sideline, Smith is also an underappreciated blitzer who times up his rushes well. He’s also durable, playing more than 1,000 snaps each of the past two seasons. Heading into 2022 under another defensive coaching regime, Smith should be the focal point of a rebuilt Bears defense."
Of course, that's part of the problem for Smith. The NFL just doesn't value off-ball linebackers the way it does cornerbacks or edge-rushers. Per Spotrac, the seventh-highest-paid inside linebacker in the league is Bobby Wagner of the Rams, who averages $10 million per season.
At 32, Wagner is much older than Smith—but he's also much more accomplished and is only in Los Angeles after the Seahawks released him because of his high salary. Only two off-ball linebackers in the league make over $15 million in average annual salary.
For a trade to be viable, the Bears need a partner with the cap space to absorb a Smith extension, a need at linebacker glaring enough to consider paying Smith and the impetus to give up not only all that cash but also quite a bit of draft capital.
It's not a long list. But there are a few teams that come to mind.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders have made it abundantly clear that they are all-in on making a deep playoff run in 2022. That became evident when the team traded for star wide receiver Davante Adams. But even after giving Adams a massive $140 million extension, the Raiders are still sitting on $22.3 million in cap space. Only the Cleveland Browns have more.
The Raiders have no shortage of offensive talent, but the team's 19th-ranked run defense is another story. Denzel Perryman had by far the best year of his professional career in 2021, but it marked the first time in seven years that he had even 75 tackles in a season. Youngster Divine Deablo is a converted safety, and free-agent addition Jayon Brown fell out of favor in Tennessee last year.
Adding Smith wouldn't be cheap, in terms of pick(s) or salary. But if he's the missing piece in the puzzle that gets the Raiders into their first Super Bowl since 2002, no one will care even a little what it costs.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Raiders aren't the only team in the AFC West that has shoved their chips to the middle of the table this year. The Chargers did the same, trading with (coincidentally) the Bears for edge-rusher Khalil Mack and signing cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency. That spending spree leaves the Chargers with just under $15 million in cap space.
Some wiggle room would need to be cleared to fit Smith under the cap, but it could be done easily enough.
The Chargers may have bolstered their pass rush and secondary this offseason, but the run defense remains a potential problem. In 2021, only the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans allowed more rushing yards per game than the 138.9 the Bolts surrendered.
Kenneth Murray has never come close to living up to his first-round draft slot over his two years in the pros. Drue Tranquill is a capable linebacker, but he's not a difference-maker. Linebacker is the clear weak spot on the Chargers new-look defense—a weakness that Smith's addition would turn into a strength.
There are a couple of annual constants about the Dallas Cowboys. The team enters each season with one goal in mind: winning the Super Bowl. Jerry Jones has never been even a little bit shy about making splash moves, either.
Also, as it happens, there isn't a team in the NFC that is sitting on more cap space than the $21.6 million the Cowboys possess.
Yes, Dallas already has one star linebacker in reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons. But even with Parsons on the roster, the Cowboys were just a middling defense against the run—16th in the league at 112.8 yards allowed per game.
After suffering numerous injuries, Leighton Vander Esch doesn't have the range he once did. Jabril Cox is a Day 3 pick coming off an ACL tear. Pairing Smith and Parsons would give Dallas the most formidable duo of inside linebackers in the league—and potentially shift the balance of power back in their favor in the NFC East.