Pushed to play out his contract, Roquan Smith returns to Chicago Bears practice, ending his training camp hold-in – The Denver Post


For nine minutes Saturday evening, Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith met with reporters inside the PNC Center at Halas Hall, trying to neatly summarize what have been a messy few months.

On the plus side for Bears fans, Smith’s contentious contract battle with the front office has ended — for now — enough so that the two-time All-Pro returned to the field Saturday after missing the first 15 practices of training camp as part of his “hold-in” strategy.

The Bears’ goal now is to ready Smith to play in their Sept. 11 season opener at Soldier Field against the San Francisco 49ers. But for Smith, the end results of his back-and-forth with general manager Ryan Poles and the Bears negotiation team on a possible contract extension have left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Now, Smith is left to play out his contract year with no security beyond the season.

In short, the Bears remain unwilling to pay Smith what he believes he is worth, standing firm behind Poles’ vision for rebuilding the team while in turn aggravating one of their most established players.

“To get on the (negotiation) process, I thought it was very distasteful to say the least,” Smith said. “It wasn’t what I anticipated.”

Most distasteful, Smith said, was “not coming to an agreement when I feel like I’ve busted my ass for so long here and then not being rewarded with something I thought was rightfully deserved.”

Named a second-team All-Pro in each of the last two seasons, Smith has been seeking to be paid like one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Within league circles, there has been buzz he was after a deal with a total value surpassing $100 million over five years.

Smith was the team’s top draft pick in 2018, selected No. 8 overall, and quickly became one of the defense’s more productive contributors. Over his first four seasons, Smith recorded 524 tackles, 43 tackles for loss and 14 sacks to go along with five interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one touchdown.

Still, the Bears always have held most of the leverage in this situation with Smith under contract through March. And amid all the tension and drama, the team has held the right cards to retain control of everything.

The massive extension Smith was seeking? Well, Poles just hasn’t been willing to meet one of the best players on his roster at Smith’s price point. So the first-year GM stood his ground.

“I see myself at a number, and they see me at a number,” Smith said. “And we couldn’t agree (on the number). We can agree to disagree. But hey, I would never accept a bad deal.”

As for the trade Smith requested Aug. 9 in an emotional 346-word statement he sent to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport? No dice there either.

“That was declined,” Smith noted. “So I think my focus has to shift.”

Thus Saturday signified a pivot point in this saga, with Smith essentially left with one choice. Return to practice. Ramp up to play as soon as possible. And push to be ultra-productive in the final year of his rookie contract with $9.735 million in salary coming his way.

“I have a contract to fulfill,” he acknowledged. “And I’m just going to go out there and be the best teammate I can be.”

With Smith desiring to be rewarded financially as one of the most elite off-the-ball linebackers in the game, his next action will be to master the weak-side linebacker role in Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defense and produce in a way that merits a huge payday.

Eberflus, who has made it a point to stay out of Smith’s contract business, envisions an opening for Smith to flourish in the new defense. Eberflus’ system, after all, positions the weak-side linebacker to have all sorts of playmaking opportunities.

“It’s just about experience, getting the experience in that role,” Eberflus said. “That’s a hot spot. He’ll have a lot of action in there. And again, I think he’ll enjoy it.”

Eberflus also emphasized Saturday that he had few worries about Smith’s contract discontent affecting his play or attitude.

“He’s been engaged,” Eberflus said. “He’s been in the meetings — thoroughly there, mentally there. He’s asking questions in meetings, helping the younger players when he’s been out. So he has been doing all that. He has been a pro that way.”

To his credit, Smith seemed willing to quash his discontent with the Bears front office and replace it with effort on the field.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m going to do it the same way I’ve always done it: 100 miles an hour and I won’t let up. … My full intention is to play this season, and whatever happens, happens. Whatever it is I have to go through this season, I’ll do it chin up, chest out. Sun sets, no regrets, baby.”

The nine minutes Smith spent answering questions Saturday weren’t nearly enough to get to the bottom of the contract conflict that has been the top storyline during training camp. Pressed for specifics on what he was seeking financially in his contract demands, Smith declined to give a number but did insinuate he has been seeking record-setting money with a push for strong guarantees.

Alas, he said, “my number and their number was not the same. And that’s pretty much all I can say.”

When Poles was first asked about Smith’s future with the Bears in March, he expressed confidence Smith would have “a really good year” and acknowledged his hope to figure out the linebacker’s contract future before the regular season began.

“Obviously the earlier you get to that, the better,” Poles said at the NFL owners meetings. “But also with a new staff, we may wait a little bit too.”

A little more than four months later, Poles was at Soldier Field reacting to Smith’s written trade request with obvious frustration and confusion.

“I think he’s a very good football player. I love the kid,” Poles said Aug. 9. “I love what he’s done on the field. Which makes me really disappointed with where we’re at right now. I thought we’d be in a better situation, to be completely honest.”

Not much has happened since then, apparently, to bring the sides closer to a compromise or to help replace the acrimony with harmony.

“The talks didn’t get too far,” Smith said. “And it didn’t end in the way that I wanted them to end.”

Pressed to recall his last conversation with Poles and where things were left, Smith bristled.

“I just know the conversations are over,” he said. “So there’s nothing more to be said.”

Smith also punched back at critics who have suggested his decision to represent himself in contract negotiations rather than using an NFLPA-certified agent was a miscalculation.

“Times are changing,” he said. “And I feel like players want to be at the (negotiation) table to have full transparency, to know what’s actually going on and what’s being said. Because a lot of people can say a lot of different things, but when you’re there yourself, you see it with your own eyes. You know for a fact what’s going on.”

In this case, Smith knows he has been shown only one path: to prove to the Bears or another team that he should be paid like one of the best defenders in football.

“Betting on myself,” he said.

As for how he’ll find the right mind frame in the coming weeks to devote himself to an organization that he feels has disrespected him?

“Wow,” Smith said. “Great question. I would say my loyalty lies with the city of Chicago, the loyal fans here, the guys in the locker room who I put my blood, sweat and tears on the line for each and every day. I’m more so focused on those guys and being the best guy I can be for those guys.”

The turmoil of the situation likely will require time to dissipate. On Saturday, at the very least, a page was turned and a new chapter began.



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