In trading Roquan, Poles once again shows he gets rebuild process


As it turns out, Sunday was a fitting end to linebacker Roquan Smith's time with the Bears. After the Bears were run over by the Cowboys 49-29 in Dallas, Smith sat at his locker taking the blame for what he deemed an "embarrassing" and "unacceptable" defensive performance that started with him.

Those would be the last words Smith spoke as a Bear. On Monday, general manager Ryan Poles traded the star linebacker to the Baltimore Ravens for a 2023 second-round pick, a 2023 fifth-round pick, and veteran linebacker A.J. Klein.

Five days after trading 32-year-old Robert Quinn to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 2023 fourth-round pick, Poles turn one of his best assets into more draft capital for his rebuild.

It was yet another instance of Poles proving he understands the proper way to execute a long-term rebuild.

Poles' tenure started with a contract staring contest with Smith. The 25-year-old linebacker wanted to be the highest-paid off-ball linebacker in the NFL. It was a bridge Poles was unwilling to cross. Smith demanded a trade in August. Poles refused.

Smith ended his hold-in and decided to bet on himself, electing to play out the final year of his contract with full knowledge the Bears could franchise tag him at the end of the season.

Poles said there were "record-breaking" parts of his contract offer to Smith. The Bears wanted to see how the 25-year-old performed as the WILL linebacker in head coach Matt Eberflus' defense before paying him like game-changing backers Shaquille Leonard or Fred Warner.

But Smith never performed like a player who had earned the historic price tag he put on himself.

Outside of good performances against the Houston Texans and New England Patriots, Smith played like an average off-ball linebacker. He was a tackling machined but struggled with gap integrity and was a liability in coverage, the area that makes Warner and Leonard so dynamic.

Last Wednesday, Smith was asked if the time away from contract negotiations had made him change his mind about asking for a trade. He said his mindset remained the same.

The simple fact is that Smith is a 25-year-old off-ball linebacker who wanted a large chunk of money the Bears wouldn't and shouldn't have paid him. He's a good player. But he isn't the cream of the crop and plays a non-premium position. Add in his age, and he never fit the timeline Poles has constructed to turn the Bears into contenders.

When building a long-term winner, it's hard to sink $20 million a season into a player at a non-premium position who didn't play up to his standard in a scheme many thought would allow him to thrive.

The Bears have now picked up a second-, fourth-, and fifth-round pick for Smith and Quinn. It made sense to deal Quinn. His time in Chicago was ending after this season one way or another. There was thought that Smith might stick around, either earning the contract he craved or getting the tag.

Instead, Poles elected to cash in his best chip to continue to focus on the future. Given where the Bears are at in the rebuild and how Smith had played, it made no sense to commit long-term, big money to him. It's smart to get what draft capital you can and focus on the future.

Trading Smith shows Poles remains dedicated to his long-term vision. He has been calculated in executing a clear plan he has drawn up for this rebuild. 

But trading Smith is a gamble. He might not be as good as he thought he was, but he's still a 25-year-old Pro Bowl linebacker who is leading the NFL in tackles. Those don't grow on trees.

Poles and the Bears' bet is that their first-time GM can draft astutely and lure free agents with the $110 million the Bears are expected to have available this offseason.

It's a big bet. But a smart one, given the status of the Bears' roster.

With all eyes on the future, Poles shipped off the talented but underachieving Smith for two picks he can use to continue to build the Bears in his desired image.

One that seemingly never included Smith.

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