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Roquan Smith
© Quinn Harris | 2018 Oct 28

Roquan Smith © Quinn Harris | 2018 Oct 28

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The top four inside linebackers from the NFL's top 'D' return but do so under new guidance from new ILB coach Mark DeLeone new and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

Rest assured, Danny Trevathan doesn't foresee any drop-off in him and fellow Pro Bowl alternate Roquan Smith.

“It’s linebacker friendly, it’s linebacker fun and it’s linebacker heaven with him,” Trevathan said in June of playing in Pagano's scheme.

Of course, Pagano is taking the torch of a Bears 'D' that's always marked the NFL's gold standard for linebacking and was in the expert hands of Vic Fangio. Still, expectations for the unit have rarely been higher than they are now.

Three burning questions:

What’s next for Roquan?

All he did in his Bears debut season — after missing the entirety of training camp and preseason in a contract squabble — was come within two tackles of Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher’s rookie franchise record and join Urlacher and John Roper as the only Bears since 1982 to record at least four sacks alongside an interception.

“First of all, outside of the white lines, unbelievable worker. Great person. Wants to be a great player," new LB coach Mark DeLeone said this spring of his star pupil who recorded a sack on his first-ever NFL snap. "And then on the field, I think he has the skill set where he can do everything. He’s a true three-down linebacker with elite tools, elite skills."

Although much was made of DeLeone's high praise, the Bears didn't spend the eighth overall pick on Smith a year ago without every expectation that he'd soon become an elite player. It's how quickly Smith flashed elite production, and how much room for growth remains in the 22-year-old, creating a palpable buzz in the middle of the defense.

“Well, potential don’t mean much, as you know," said the modest Smith, whose unique speed should only become more apparent and valuable this season as he harnesses it and the game continues slowing down around him.

Trevathan’s walk year?

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He was easily at his best as a Bear in 2018, providing steadiness and veteran leadership on the field and in the locker room, especially in taking Smith under his wing and truncating the rookie's learning curve. But it was the penultimate season of Trevathan's four-year, $28 million deal, after he missed 11 combined games with injuries/suspension from 2015-16. After Prince Amukama and Akiem Hicks, he's the oldest key member of the Bears 'D,' and he comes with bigger durability concerns stemming from his position and play temperament.

GM Ryan Pace three years ago gave Willie Young an extension ahead of his age-31 contract season as Young was coming off the best stretch of his career ... could Trevathan be treated similarly? It's possible that with Cody Whitehair their only other serious extension candidate, the Bears could attempt to sign Trevathan before the season.

But tricky extension decisions loom on younger, more dynamic homegrown Bears as early as next offseason, also potentially positioning this year as the bridge to finding Trevathan's heir.

Is Smith's future running mate on roster?

With a new defensive coordinator and linebacker coaches and a renewed special teams emphasis, the backup hierarchy isn't necessarily locked in. Though top reserve Nick Kwiatkoski and top special teams tackler Joel Iyiegbuniwe are back, the former is limited on defense, where the latter logged sparse meaningful reps last season as a fourth-round rookie.

Moreover, the Bears signed athletic special teams demon Kevin Pierre-Louis, who played under DeLeone and Matt Nagy, and the team appears high on Josh Woods, who spent his rookie season on the practice squad after going undrafted out of Maryland. Consider it an open competition behind the two stalwarts.

The best-case scenario is that Iggy soaks up Trevathan's knowledge, showing starting upside behind the scenes in Year 2 and projects as an affordable partner for Smith in 2020 and beyond.

Bears ILB corps will be among the NFL's best if ...

It stays the course. Trevathan and Smith didn't even have a preseason together and developed their rapport on the fly. With Thomas Davis no longer in Carolina, Telvin Smith out in Jacksonville and K.J. Wright coming off his least productive season in Seattle, Chicago could boast football's best LB duo.

The wheels will fall off this unit if ...

Obviously, Smith suffering an injury could be cataclysmic. But because he and Trevathan are slightly undersized and benefit greatly from the behemoths covering them, the health of Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman is also vital.

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This article originally ran on profootballweekly.com.

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