With contract future out of focus, Roquan Smith showing the Bears something 'special'

Smith and the Bears could put contract extension talks on the backburner.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- Bears coach Matt Nagy recently underscored the collectively bargained right for players to skip OTAs, which more than a dozen key veterans on his team chose to do.

The Bears practiced without nearly every member of their starting defense in OTAs except for one player -- fourth-year inside linebacker Roquan Smith, whose presence stood out to Nagy.

"The way that he has grown into the player and person, to me, it's super special," Nagy said. "They don't make many players like Roquan Smith, I'll just tell you that right now. They just don't. And we are so lucky to have him as one of the main leaders of this defense."

Smith, 24, is in a different place from other key players on the Bears' defense. While the likes of edge rusher Khalil Mack and safety Eddie Jackson are locked into lucrative contracts, Smith is fighting for his future.

The No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Smith had his fifth-year option picked up by the Bears, which keeps him under contract for the next two seasons. But he's also vying for a long-term future in Chicago.

"That's definitely something I want," Smith said. "But that's not my focus right now."

For Smith and the Bears, it might make sense to put the negotiations on the backburner.

By exercising the fifth-year option on Smith, the Bears bought additional time to work out an extension. That will allow general manager Ryan Pace and lead negotiator Joey Laine to gain a better sense of the NFL's financial future beyond 2021, when the Bears' adjusted salary cap is set at $190 million. That number figures to rise significantly in the coming years.

By waiting, the Bears can also see if Smith repeats his performance of 2020, when he posted 139 total tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions. Pace and his brass have used this approach before. They signed Jackson to an extension just days after their 2019 season ended, locking him in long term ahead of what would've been his final year under contract.

For his part, Smith could benefit by waiting in the sense that the linebacker market would reset with contract extensions for 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, who's also 24, and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, 25, a pair of standouts who are in the final years of their respective contracts.

Seahawks star Bobby Wagner leads all inside linebackers with an average annual salary of $18 million, a figure that will likely be topped by Warner and Leonard. Whether Smith proves himself worthy of the same offering remains to be seen.

The Bears see now is a player in Smith who's eager to prove himself as one of the game's elite linebackers. It started by simply showing up.

"It’s special," Nagy said. "It really is. And it’s not talk. It’s real. He’s out there, everything’s 100 miles per hour. He wants to learn. He’s willing to be a sponge. He doesn’t think he knows everything. He’s extremely motivated internally.

"It's not fabricated, it’s not false. It’s very organic. So, I am so pumped to see what he does this year."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.