The Chicago Bears drafted a gem in the 2018 NFL Draft with the eighth overall pick with former Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Roquan Smith. Smith is a fantastic talent and has all the makings of a successful player for years to come.
Of course, like any player there is room for improvement and after one season it’s fair to say Smith is no different.
Although Smith led the Bears in tackles during his rookie season with 121 total, there is plenty more left for him to improve upon and take his game to the next level. The Bears defense made the jump to the elite conversation in 2018 and it seems safe to assume they will replicate that success moving forward.
Smith is a big part of their plans for the future, but if he wants to remain atop the team’s stat sheets he’ll need to do his best to improve his game to keep the Bears defense in the elite category.
Here are a few aspects to Smith’s game that he needs to improve upon to be among the league’s top linebackers.
While Smith was the team’s leader in tackles last season, he struggled at times in open field. Smith was unreal against the run and that much is well-documented, but his size at 6-foot-1 has hindered his ability to make tackles in open field situations.
The Bears linebacker makes plenty of tackles as a whole, but he’ll need to take some notes from teammate Danny Trevathan in order to emulate his lights out tackling ability. Smith is young and looks to be everything the Bears drafted him to be and it won’t be long before his ability to make tackles in the open field starts coming together.
Smith’s struggles against the passing game go hand-in-hand with the tackles he misses in the open field. Nobody can argue his ability to be a wrecking ball against run plays, but against the pass there is definitely room for improvement.
As stated previously, Smith’s size does often find him a bit vulnerable at times considering plenty of receivers he faces off against will have a height advantage on him. The Bears likely will work on Smith establishing a better sense of what it will take to elevate his pass defense.
Whether it’s his first step in coverage or his ability to compensate for his size, it’s highly likely Smith will continue to grow his game and remain a strong contributor to the Bears’ defense.
The Bears watched Smith unleash his incredible skill set all season long and wreck games for opposing offenses. Some games were definitely not as good as others in regards to Smith’s numbers for that given game.
Way back before the 2018 NFL season, the Raiders traded Khalil Mack to the Bears, a deal that would have a wide-ranging impact on the outcome of various football games. Chicago thrived, winning its division on the back of its defense, while the Raiders struggled to generate any pass rush and limped to a four-win season.
Universally, the deal was panned. Until the Sloan Sports Conference anyway, when a bunch of analytically-minded folks in the sports space decided to hand the Raiders a giant trophy as part of being named winner of the “Best Transaction” award.
Yes, the trade of Khalil Mack — largely ripped by everyone, including yours truly right here on this website — was considered the Best Transaction in all of sports in 2018 from an analytical perspective.
So, uh, why? Well, as Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey (one of the conference’s founders and one of the voters) explained to Vic Tafur of The Athletic, it was in large part because of how valuable the panel of people perceive draft picks to be.
“Everybody else thought it was a terrible trade, but draft picks are very valuable,” Morey told Tafur. “Analytics tends to fly in the face of popular convention pretty often.
“We don’t care about what people say.”
The funniest part about this story, by far, is that when Morey called Raiders team president Marc Badain to tell him they won the award, the Oakland president didn’t believe him and thought Morey was pulling a practical joke on him.
“Marc thought I was making fun of him,” Morey said. “I had to tell him several times that I wasn’t kidding. I guess they took a lot of heat for that.”
They sure did! Everyone ripped the Raiders for dealing an in-his-prime pass rusher like Mack, especially when Oakland’s primary logic was that they couldn’t pay Mack what he wanted to get in a deal. (The Bears quickly gave Mack a massive deal, handing him $141 million with $90 million guaranteed after they traded for him.)
With the benefit of hindsight, we can definitely see the Raiders were holding firm on their price tag for Mack, having demanded two first-round picks for him after it was clear Mack and Oakland weren’t going to be able to work out a new contract.
The Raiders did not get the picks they wanted, per se, because the Bears ended up being a much better team than they thought initially. Oakland said after the fact it chose Chicago as the best trade partner because the Raiders and Jon Gruden viewed the Bears as the most likely team out of the ones they were talking with to struggle in 2018.
Just before the NFL trade deadline in October, a team in the playoff hunt offered the Bears a third-round draft pick for running back Jordan Howard.
General manager Ryan Pace declined, one of several smart decisions Pace made for the eventual NFC North champions.
A source said the Bears held on to Howard for their own playoff chase, faith he rewarded with a strong final month. Howard gained 399 yards on 88 carries in five games down the stretch, providing the reliability his running lacked earlier in the season.
Nobody feels satisfied with Howard’s 935-yard season in 2018, but both of his 100-yard games came in that pivotal period when he averaged 4.5 yards per carry. He gave a defensive-driven playoff team a necessary element, a power running game.
With due respect to global warming, the Bears can’t count on the conditions being any milder next December. Howard is the flannel shirt in coach Matt Nagy’s closet full of trendier clothes, something Nagy might not miss until a chill returns. That makes Howard worth keeping, even as trade rumors reignited recently at the NFL combine.
Not that Nagy sounded enamored last week with the idea of keeping Howard when describing the ideal running back for his offense and decrying any notion of needing the kind of workhorse like Howard who will get more than 20 carries.
“You want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss,” Nagy said at the combine. “At the same time, there’s that balance of being a hybrid, being able to make things happen in the pass game, too, but where you’re not one-dimensional. And that’s not easy.’’
It’s not hard to think Nagy believes he needs Howard like he needs a comb. Howard’s inability to make people miss contributed to his dropping to the fifth round of the 2016 draft, and the next time anybody uses the term “hybrid” to describe him will be the first.
He is a straight-line runner who makes his mark with force more than finesse. Those traits always made Howard awkward in Nagy’s offense, despite being the only Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
But some realities must be reinforced for anyone entertaining the fantasy the Bears would be better off unloading Howard.
First, Howard represents a reasonable $2 million salary-cap hit as he enters the final season of his rookie deal — a contract year offering motivation that can benefit the Bears. He’s a cheap insurance policy. The Bears can keep Howard without making him the focal point of an offense that will evolve into one that spreads the football among multiple playmakers.
That was the hope last season, when the Bears won their last four games without scoring more than 24 points as Howard averaged 18 carries and 81 rushing yards. No good reason exists for the Bears to weaken their roster by getting rid of a strength. They have no obvious alternative. Tarik Cohen’s versatility and explosiveness only would be enhanced if Howard returns. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Howard finished the 2018 regular season with five straight clutch performances.
Eatonville native Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has always said playing football is not about the money.
His love of the game has always driven him and he proved that last week when he accepted a one-year, $3.5 million contract offer to sign with the Chicago Bears, far less money than he could have received elsewhere.
“It was definitely hard to turn down the money, but the only thing God has always harped is, ‘Don’t love the money.’ It’s just another part of my journey and I’m excited about it,” Clinton-Dix said. “A lot of teams were interested and it was just about making the right decision. It wasn’t about the money. … I just had to look at the situation.
“Chicago is on the rise and has a thriving defense in a great system with Coach [Matt] Nagy, and I wanted to feel part of something special. … I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I was signing a long-term deal but then end up not being happy. You know me. I love football. I do it for fun and being able to get paid to do it is a blessing.”
Clinton-Dix, a former Orlando Dr. Phillips and Alabama star, signed for only about $400,000 more than he made after being traded from the Green Bay Packers to the Washington Redskins in October.
He was one of the top free-agent safeties in a loaded safety class, and his good friend and former Crimson Tide teammate Landon Collins actually took his place by signing with the Redskins. Another free-agent safety he has always admired and looked up to is veteran Earl Thomas, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
“It was a fun process and just having my name mentioned with those guys, a bunch of All-Pro players … It just showed me I’m in the right position and I just gotta do more,” Clinton-Dix said. “I gotta challenge myself more. If I want to be considered an elite safety, I have to dive into the film work and I have to fall in love with the game even more and just find ways to be better.
“Those guys out there are just extra motivation for me. Just talking to Earl, he has always told me from the first time I met him to, ‘Do the right thing.’ … how humble he was and how thankful he was just gave me my drive.”
In Chicago, Clinton-Dix saw an opportunity to join another former Alabama safety in Eddie Jackson, who was drafted by the Bears in 2017.
“I’m back with Eddie Jackson and I know he loves it in Chicago and I can’t wait to play alongside of him,” Clinton-Dix said. “I had a chance to sign a one-year deal to play with Landon or Eddie Jackson and both of those guys are hella players, but I just thought if I could get back in this system here and in the NFC North and the sky is the limit.”
It has been a busy past few months for Clinton-Dix.
It actually started for the one-time NFL All-Pro safety with the trade to Washington in October. He was in his contract season with the Packers and with six games remaining, Green Bay sent him to Washington.
That was just the beginning of numerous new experiences for the 26-year-old star. When the season ended, he was a free agent for the first time in his five-year NFL career. In January he became a father for the first time. After that, he began looking into his NFL future and listening to contract pitches from teams.
“It was almost like going back to high school and picking a college. With not having a say-so in the NFL draft (2014), this just gave me an opportunity as a free agent to explore different organizations,” Clinton-Dix said. “Coming from Green Bay, a top organization and seeing how things were run there and then to go to Washington to give me a feel for a different organization, I came out knowing exactly what I wanted from an NFL organization … and that is to be successful and have a chance to win a championship.”
Another interesting thing about Clinton-Dix joining the Bears is that he’ll see his former Green Bay teammates twice next season.
“Yeah, I’ll get a chance to play against my former teammates, a great group of guys who I know are very competitive and just love the game, so I’m excited about that,” he said. “I’m excited about it so let’s get it going.”
Clinton-Dix is enjoying helping raise his daughter Dior Alivia Clinton-Dix, who was 6-pounds, 13-ounces at birth.
“She’s doing good. I got a perfect baby. She’s doesn’t make any noise, she’ don’t’ complain … she’s a good baby,” Clinton-Dix said. “It’s a blessing. It just gives me another reason to provide.
“It’s hard to explain the joy that I have when I wake up in the mornings just knowing that I have a child. She’s so precious. She’s sure got her hands wrapped around me. Not a day goes by or any second that flies by that she’s not on my mind.”