While there is no such thing as a list of great Chicago Bears quarterbacks, there is an NFL-defining list of great Bears linebackers. For decades, the men patrolling the middle of the Bears D at Soldier Field have been not just among the best in the league but Hall of Fame-level players. There have been names like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher.
Now, there might be one more name to add to the list: Roquan Smith.
The Chicago Bears have a rich history of all-time great linebackers
In 1920, George Halas’ Decatur Staleys of the American Professional Football Association scored 164 points while holding their opponents to just 21 points in 12 games. That’s when the great Chicago Bears defense was born.
The APFL eventually became the NFL, and the Staleys became the Bears. However, amazingly, Halas was still coaching in 1965 when the franchise drafted local product (Chicago Vocational High School, University of Illinois) Richard Marvin “Dick” Butkus.
Butkus became the most feared linebacker of a generation. He racked up eight Pro Bowl appearances and five All-Pro nods in his nine-season career. He retired at 31, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him on the first ballot in 1979.
Two seasons after Butkus went into Canton, the Bears drafted another fearsome linebacker: Baylor’s Mike Singletary.
With fiery eyes immortalized by NFL Films, Singletary patrolled the middle of the vaunted Bears defenses through the 1980s and into the early 1990s. He improved on Butkus’ career in terms of both individual accolades and team achievement.
Singletary was a 10-time Pro Bowler and a seven-time All-Pro, and he led the ’86 Bears defense — arguably the best ever — to a Super Bowl victory.
Less than a decade after Singletary hung up the cleats, the Bears took one more all-timer in 2000: New Mexico’s Brian Urlacher. He was a worthy successor to Butkus and Singletary in the new millennium.
Urlacher’s Hall of Fame career resume includes eight Pro Bowls, five All-Pro nods, the 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year Award, and a Super Bowl appearance.
Now, in 2021, there is a new heir to the Chicago Bears’ linebacker throne.
Roquan Smith is the next of the great Bears linebackers
Roquan Smith played college ball at Georgia and, like Dick Butkus and Brian Urlacher before him, was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears (Mike Singletary went in the second round).
Smith made his mark on the famed organization right out of the gate. He started 14 games in his rookie season while recording 121 tackles, 5.0 sacks, and an interception. The former Bulldog also led the Bears in tackles in each of his first three seasons and already has 62 in the first six games of 2021.
His coach, Matt Nagy, explained on the FOX NFL Sunday pregame show that the reason for Smith’s excellence in the modern game is his athleticism and versatility.
“There’s not a lot of linebackers right now in this league that can make a violent tackle,” Nagy said. “But at the same time, be able to cover all these scat backs. And he can do both of those.”
Smith agrees with his coach’s assessment of his skills:
You have to be able to do a lot of different things. … They’re getting the game now to where it’s played out in space. The more you can do, and the more athletic you are, hey, the better it is. … Oh, absolutely, I consider myself the best linebacker in the league, without a doubt.Roquan Smith on himself
After the pregame profile on Smith, FOX’s Michael Strahan noted that current-day linebackers like Devin White, Bobby Wagner, and Fred Warner get a lot of ink. However, Smith deserves to be mentioned not only with them, but with Butkus, Singletary, and Urlacher too.
Smith faces a tough challenge in the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7
After losing a hard-fought battle with their oldest rival, the Green Bay Packers, there’s no rest for Roquan Smith and the Chicago Bears. On Sunday, the team travels to Tampa Bay for a showdown with Tom Brady and the 5-1 Buccaneers.
Smith will engage in a high-level chess match with Brady, just like he did with Aaron Rodgers last week. Additionally, the linebacker will be responsible for dealing with Leonard Fournette. The running back has put up 127, 110, and 139 all-purpose yards in the last three weeks.
When he’s not matching wits with the GOAT or wrestling the 228-pound back, Smith will likely have to guard the Bucs’ excellent yet underrated tight end, Cameron Brate.
That’s actually the better of Smith’s options, though. The other possibility is that Rob Gronkowski comes back from his rib injury after missing three games. That would make Smith responsible for stopping Gronk from adding to his four 2021 touchdowns.
The Buccaneers are almost two-touchdown favorites on Sunday, so the Bears will likely fall flat despite Smith’s best efforts.
However, there should still be joy in Wrigleyville about their NFL team’s long-term prospects. If Justin Fields can become the player the team drafted him to be, an offense led by him and a defense captained by Smith could be a formidable combination for years to come.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference