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Should Steelers Pursue Bears LB Roquan Smith?

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Roquan Smith

Chicago Bears starting inside linebacker Roquan Smith requested a trade on Tuesday, opening the doors for what could be bidding war for the former No. 8 overall draft pick, but should the Pittsburgh Steelers be one of the teams participating?

The Steelers’ needs at inside linebacker have been well documented. Since the untimely end of Ryan Shazier’s career, the team has struggled to find an inside linebacker that can handle the coverage responsibilities that its preferred defensive scheme puts on the position.

Devin Bush was supposed to be the answer to that problem after the Steelers moved up in the first round to draft him at No. 10 overall in 2019, but so far has yet to live up to the promise of his draft status.

Bush had a strong enough rookie season in 2019, but suffered a knee injury in 2020 and didn’t look like the same player in 2021. This offseason, the team declined the fifth-year option of his contract, putting into serious doubt whether Bush will be a long-term part of the team’s plans. Fellow inside linebackers Myles Jack and Robert Spillane are on two- and one-year contracts, respectively, and seem to be short-term solutions at best.

RELATED: Farabaugh: Robert Spillane is Real Competition for Devin Bush

But Smith is a four-year veteran that is still only 25 years old. He’s been an AP All-Pro the last two seasons and with a new deal, could be a fixture in the center of the Steelers’ defense for years to come.

There are two roadblocks to that potential solution: What would the Chicago Bears wants to get in order to unload Smith, and what does he demand in terms of a contract extension?

The Bears have reportedly offered Smith a contract that would make him the highest paid linebacker in the league, but did so with a backloaded contract with a de-escalator clause that offended Smith. 

Spotrac believes he is worth an average annual value of $17.6 million per year. Smith is also owed $9.735 million in salary for 2022. With an extension, the Steelers could work that into the salary cap for the 2022 season, but that would make his cap hit nearly $20 million a year for the rest of the extension.

That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for the Steelers’ future salary cap, as the team has very little in the way of big-dollar commitments. Diontae Johnson, Chukwuma Okorafor, James Daniels, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the only players owed more than $5 million beyond 2023.

The Steelers can afford Smith, but is paying big money to an inside linebacker a good idea? They already have big money tied up at a non-premiere position in free safety. The team should be expected to have a very good, if not great defense, without Smith.

Meanwhile, the team is getting by pretty cheaply at the premier offensive positions. Right now, quarterback, running back, two-thirds of the wide receiver spots, tight end and left tackle are all manned by players on rookie contracts and/or cheap free agents. That won’t be the case for long.

It’s an offensive league, and while dominant defenses can certainly go a long way (see the defending Super Bowl champions), most of the most expensive players play on offense.

Then there’s the matter of what it would take to pry Smith away from the Bears. They would be expected to get a third-round compensatory pick if he leaves as a free agent, so the offer would have to be significantly more than that. General manager Ryan Poles sure didn’t sound like a guy itching to make a move when asked about the situation on Tuesday.

“My intentions are to make sure Roquan Smith’s on this team,” Poles said. “We’re doing everything we can to get this done.”

The Steelers would have to make a pretty strong offer to get Smith, and while his performance is probably worth a big payment, the combination of a high cost to acquire and a high future salary starts to tip the scales against such a move. Unless the Bears would be intrigued by Bush or Mason Rudolph, the Steelers are probably looking at a pure draft-pick trade, which means likely a first-rounder.

The better bet for the Steelers would be to see if Bush and/or Spillane can show enough improvement to be considered long-term options and hope Smith goes unsigned into free agency next offseason, when it would only take cash, and not additional draft capital, to land him.

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