On the morning of the Bears annual “Family Fest” training camp practice at Soldier Field, Bears fans woke up to the news that the team’s best player wants out.
Smith, one of the few high draft picks Chicago has gotten right in the last decade, has been staging a hold-in for a new contract since training camp began. The second-team All Pro is entering the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, and he wants to get paid among the top linebackers in the NFL. He’s present in meetings and in the facility but he isn’t practicing. The Bears placed the 25-year-old linebacker on the physically unable to perform list on the first day of training camp practice, and tried to convince reporters that he really was rehabbing an injury.
Would a contract make him physically able to perform? A reporter asked on the first day of camp practice.
“I know right now that he is on that, and that’s all I can say at this time,” head coach Matt Eberflus said.
Eberflus would not and has not specified what injury Smith has.
This is simply masterful Notes App work by Smith. He knows his audience and immediately appeals to the nostalgia that Chicago fans have for the only position this franchise has ever consistently gotten right, then he quickly turns to publicly shaming Chicago’s new general manager, Ryan Poles, and revealing that he hasn’t talked to ownership at all about his contract.
Smith isn’t new to tense contract negotiations. As a rookie in 2018, he held out of training camp and missed the first 15 practices. Then, he didn’t have the standing to criticize the front office, and he answered every question with, “that’s between my agent and Mr. Pace,” referring to Ryan Pace, who was the Bears’ GM at the time and the guy whose mistakes Poles was not meant to repeat.
This time around, Smith has little to lose and he’s finding leverage in the current moment, which has seen Poles and the Bears’ front office make a string of strange decisions while generally looking in over their heads. Smith is a four-year starter, a two-time second team AP All-Pro, and he no longer has an NFLPA-certified agent representing him. In his Notes App statement, he called out “the new front office regime” for undervaluing him and taking advantage of him. Smith then went over the head of his boss and pitted Bears ownership, the McCaskey family, against their new hire .
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to the McCaskey family,” his statement reads. “Maybe they can salvage this, but as of right now, I don’t see a path back to the organization I truly love.”
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, playing the role of Smith’s Twitter agent, reported that Smith is not happy with Chicago’s offer because it’s back-loaded and would not make him the highest paid linebacker in actual salary, and because it “included proposed de-escalators that not a single player out of the 94 non-QB, $15M+ contracts has. He was offended.” A de-escalator is a contract device that takes money away from a player’s contract value if he doesn’t hit a certain stat, and it often has to do with how many snaps a player sees in a given season.
With a new head coach and general manager, the Bears are in a major rebuilding phase. Poles already dumped the other cornerstones of the defense when he traded edge rusher Khalil Mack to the Chargers and let defensive end Akiem Hicks go in free agency.
You could argue that because this team is starting over, Chicago might be interested in trading Smith for draft value and another player, but you could also argue that a homegrown, 25-year-old linebacker is exactly the type of player that a new general manager and defensive head coach should be motivated to keep, if only to maintain some semblance of continuity and credibility as they enter their first season on the job.
Poles has had a strange first spring and summer. In March, the Bears agreed to terms with free agent defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, subject to him passing a physical. But Ogunjobi failed that physical, and Poles rescinded the deal. Poles didn’t double back with a more team-friendly contract, and Ogunjobi is now at Steelers camp, where he’s been getting a lot of positive coverage since returning from a foot injury.
In June, defensive end Robert Quinn, who set the team’s single-season sack record with 18.5 sacks in 2021, skipped the team’s mandatory mini-camp amid rumors that he also wanted a trade.
In July, Poles fired vice president of player engagement LaMar “Soup” Campbell, who was well-liked and had been in the role since 2017. Poles narrowly avoided a holdout from his top draft pick, safety Jaquan Brisker, who signed his deal one day before the team started practicing.
And last week, Rapoport reported that the Bears received calls from other teams about second-year offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, who at the time was missing from practice due to a mysterious injury. ESPN Radio’s Peggy Kusinski added that the Bears were actively shopping Jenkins, who “fell out of favor early with the new staff.” Jenkins has since returned to practice and denied that he’s clashed with Bears coaches.
Poles spoke to reporters Tuesday after the Bears’ practice wrapped. He said he still loves Smith and thinks he is a great player and he is “disappointed with where they are at right now.” Poles said there are “record-setting pieces of the contract that I thought was going to show him the respect that he deserves, but that hasn’t been the case.”
Poles said right now, his intention is to sign Smith to the team, not to trade him, but he has to do what is best for the organization.
This is a turning point for Poles. Trade Smith for value and commit to tearing it down despite the inevitable public backlash, or work out a deal to keep from alienating a beloved player during a tumultuous rebuild? That this is only one of many problems that Poles still needs to solve before the season kicks off does not inspire a ton of confidence in the Bears’ new regime.