Bears offseason outlook: Inside linebacker

Roquan Smith has emerged as one of the NFL's premier inside linebackers.

Editor's note: This marks the eighth piece in a series of positional outlooks for the Bears' roster entering this offseason. Click here to read the rest of them.

(670 The Score) Bears linebacker Roquan Smith's rise proved to be one of the team's success stories of 2020, as the promising young player fulfilled his billing.

Smith had 139 tackles, 98 solo tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions in a stellar campaign that was worthy of Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition, even though he didn't receive it. In time, his contract future will be a focus for the Bears as he prepares to lead their defense forward in 2021 and beyond.

Who's under contract
Roquan Smith, 23 -- The No. 8 overall pick of the Bears in 2018, Smith has emerged as one of the NFL's premier inside linebackers. He played in all 16 regular-season games in 2020 but suffered an elbow injury in the finale that caused him to be sidelined for Chicago's loss in the wild-card round in the playoffs.

Danny Trevathan, 30 -- Signed to a three-year extension last March, Trevathan is locked in contractually thanks to a backloaded deal. He played the full 16-game season, posting 113 tackles and 67 solos.

Joel Iyiegbuniwe, 25 -- A fourth-round pick of the Bears in 2018, Iyiegbuniwe has carved out a role in special teams, playing 82% of those snaps last season.

Free agents
Josh Woods, 24 -- Woods filled a reserve role at inside linebacker while playing in 60% of the Bears' special teams snaps.

Manti Te'o, 30 -- The veteran linebacker Te'o made his lone appearance in a Bears uniform by playing in the wild-card loss to the Saints, posting six tackles in the game.

Quote to note
"I mean that's crazy that he didn't receive that honor, because he definitely deserves it. I wish I could give him my bid. At the end of the day, Roquan is a special, special player and a special person. Not only is he doing his job, but he's helping others do theirs by communicating. And just seeing the growth as a player on the field and communication and putting us in the right places. Getting calls out, it's special to see. It's crazy, but understanding that he's having a hell of a year is enough."
-- Bears star edge rusher Khalil Mack on Smith's Pro Bowl snub

What's ahead
Barring a major surprise, the Bears will return in 2021 with the tandem of Smith and Trevathan at inside linebacker.

Sometime down the line, the bigger picture will come into focus with Smith, who currently has one year remaining on his rookie contract. The Bears will almost certainly exercise the fifth-year option to keep him under contract control through 2022, and he's a key player for their long-term future.

The Bears may be forced to put off long-term extension talks with Smith until 2022, given their salary cap situation this offseason and the uncertain nature of the NFL's current finances.

And while the Bears' quarterback search and top receiver Allen Robinson -- who's set to become a free agent -- deserve priority in regards to the salary cap, retaining Smith on a contract extension is something to already consider. At the least, the two sides should begin exploring terms and possibilities.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.