Smith has a reputation as one of the better young linebackers in the NFL
In an offseason full of blockbuster trades and record-breaking deals, another young NFL star has requested a trade amid a contract dispute.
Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith took to social media to air his trade request, per Ian Rapoport.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 9, 2022
Smith’s words make clear that he would like to remain in Chicago, but he feels disrespected in contract negotiations and sees no way out besides a trade.
“I wanted to be a Bear for my entire career, help this team bring a Super Bowl (sic) back to our city. However, they have left me [with] no choice than to request a trade that allows me to play for an organization that truly values what I bring to the table.”
Unlike Deebo Samuel and others who have requested trades this offseason, Smith does an excellent job keeping himself on the high road. He invites a favorable reaction from fans.
Bears general manager Ryan Poles addressed the situation head-on in a surprise press conference today.
— Sean Hammond (@sean_hammond) August 9, 2022
— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) August 9, 2022
Although Poles seemingly made clear that he wants Smith to remain a Bear, the end of his statement leaves the door open for a parting of the ways.
“With that said, we can’t lose sight that this isn’t about one player. My job is to build a roster that sustains success for a long period of time. At the end of the day, we have to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears.”
The general manager’s words are bound to invite endless speculation about Smith’s next destination. Although it’s unclear if the linebacker will even hit the trade market, every franchise and fan base will be asking themselves if the 25-year-old could come over and solidify the middle of their defense.
So let’s ask the question here: Should the New York Jets pursue a trade for Roquan Smith?
2nd-team All-Pro inside linebacker
Smith was drafted by the Bears with the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He entered the league under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who ran a 3-4 defense. Therefore, Smith’s position was officially a 3-4 inside linebacker, which is where he has been listed over his first four seasons in the NFL. However, with the change to head coach Matt Eberflus, Smith is currently listed as the WILL linebacker on the Bears’ depth chart.
Smith is listed at 6’1″ and anywhere between 225 and 232 pounds, which means he fits Jets head coach Robert Saleh‘s preference for smaller, lighter, faster linebackers. He ran an unofficial 4.52 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine.
It is important to note that Smith is currently on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. However, it appears that this was simply a way for the Bears to prevent Smith from staging a hold-in at training camp.
In Smith’s four seasons in the NFL, the analytics website Pro Football Focus has not been bullish on him overall. He has put up overall PFF grades of 64.2, 52.4, 67.2, and 47.8 in his four years in the league.
However, it’s the breakdown of those grades that led to his second-team All-Pro selection the last two seasons and his overall reputation as a top linebacker.
While Smith’s smaller stature leaves him vulnerable in run defense, as his 30.0 run defense grade from last season attests, it’s in tackling and coverage that Smith truly shines. He has averaged a 78.0 tackling grade and a 69.1 coverage grade in his career.
Getting deeper into the numbers, Smith ranked 12th among 74 qualified linebackers in 2021 with a 69.2 coverage grade. His 7.8 yards per reception allowed was ninth-best. His 7.1% missed tackle rate was tied for ninth-best, and he led all linebackers with 67 stops (defined by PFF as a tackle that constitutes a “failure” for the offense, admittedly a subjective statistic).
|Overall PFF grade (rank out of 74 qualified linebackers)||PFF run defense grade||PFF tackling grade||PFF coverage grade||Tackles, per PFF||Missed tackle rate||Yards per reception allowed|
|CJ Mosley||42.0 (65th)||38.5 (64)||70.9 (23)||50.2 (50)||130 (2)||9.2% (26)||8.9 (26)|
|Quincy Williams||44.2 (58)||41.7 (57)||58.3 (51)||47.9 (56)||83 (17)||12.1% (47)||9.7 (41)|
|Kwon Alexander||53.9 (39)||34.8 (66)||42.7 (69)||68.8 (14)||41 (65)||19.0% (73)||10.4 (55)|
|Roquan Smith||47.8 (50)||30.0 (69)||78.5 (11)||69.2 (12)||111 (6)||7.1% (9)||7.8 (9)|
Clearly, Smith brings coverage skills and sure-handed tackling that the Jets could use at the linebacker position. However, his primary weakness, run defense, matches the key deficiency that the Jets still have at linebacker.
Fit in the Jets’ defensive scheme
As already stated, Smith has the size and speed preferred by Robert Saleh in his linebackers. Although Smith has played in a base 3-4, the Bears ran a lot of 4-2-5 nickel packages, which is what the Jets’ core sub-package is. He is a strong coverage linebacker and a good tackler.
The question is where he would slot in. Kwon Alexander was recently signed and figures to play a lot of WILL, which is where Smith was slated to play with the Bears. The Jets still love Quincy Williams, and C.J. Mosley is the center of their defense.
However, Mosley is 30 years old and showed signs of aging last season. Although his dead cap of $20 million ensures that he will be on the roster this season, he has just a $3 million dead cap charge next season. Considering that his cap hit would be $18.5 million if he remains on the roster, Mosley will certainly be a cap casualty next season. The Jets could try to re-sign him at a far lower number, but it is likely that Mosley will no longer be with the team after 2022.
Additionally, Alexander is on a one-year, $1.12 million contract. He is a stopgap solution, not meant to be the Jets’ long-term answer at WILL linebacker. If the Jets really believe in Smith as a long-term defensive cog, they could trade for him and start him at WILL this season, with Alexander backing up both the WILL and SAM positions. They could also install him at the MIKE next year in place of Mosley or keep him at the WILL.
Cost of a trade
The question starts with how much the Jets would need to give up for Smith. Linebacker is not considered a highly valued position in the current NFL landscape, but Smith is considered one of the best at his position. He is also just 25 years old. The Bears would not give him up on the cheap. They will want multiple picks for him.
Joe Douglas was aggressive in trading up in the draft this year, but he has been reluctant to part with his draft assets prior to seeing how the board shakes out. Additionally, the Jets project to have multiple needs to fill, including tackle, safety, and defensive tackle.
A lot of this will depend on how Douglas views the Jets team as a whole and their defense specifically. Are they ready to seriously contend for the postseason? Are they an off-ball linebacker away from being a playoff-competitive defense?
Cost of an extension
Smith is currently slated to make $9.735 million on the fifth-year option. Obviously, he wants out of Chicago due to a contract dispute. He will most likely look to the Colts’ Shaquille Leonard (previously known as Darius) for a baseline. Leonard signed a five-year, $98 million contract that includes a $20 million signing bonus, $52.5 million in total guarantees, and an average annual value of $19.7 million. Smith will likely want something in the five-year, $100 million range.
For 2022, the Jets are pretty tight on cap space. Per OvertheCap.com, the Jets have $8.9 million in cap space remaining. However, most of that may end up soon tied up in the tackle position following Mekhi Becton’s presumably season-ending kneecap fracture. Duane Brown figures to cost most if not all of that. It would be difficult to make even the $9.7 million fifth-year option work.
Once the Jets shed Mosley’s salary in 2023, they would theoretically have space to give Smith such an extension. However, would Joe Douglas want to sign another off-ball linebacker to a huge extension after seeing how Mosley’s contract aged? Yes, Smith is two years younger than Mosley was when he signed with the Jets, but he’s at a similar experience level in the NFL. Furthermore, Mosley is not the only cautionary tale when it comes to signing off-ball linebackers to big deals. Consider this tweet by Brad Spielberger of PFF:
Team building is about context. Yes, Roquan Smith is a very good player
Very few of the top off-ball LB deals in recent years aged well:
– Jaylon Smith
– Deion Jones
– Myles Jack
– Anthony Barr
– Kwon Alexander
– Zach Cunningham
Etc. etc. etc. The window is a bad fit
— Brad Spielberger, Esq. (@PFF_Brad) August 9, 2022
Joe Douglas has shown himself to be prudent when it comes to team-building. He knows this better than anyone.
Should the Jets pursue Smith?
Ultimately, looking at the contract numbers, the answer must be “no.” The Jets are not an off-ball linebacker away from being seriously competitive. While Smith is a very good player and has the skillset that Robert Saleh likes in linebackers, he will be too expensive for the value he provides.
The Jets should move forward with Mosley, Williams, and Alexander at linebacker and find cheaper options either in free agency or the draft next season.