HENDERSON, Nev. — With a long grin curving his face and a collection of youngsters draped around him for a photo, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith was the last NFL all-star remaining at a charity event Friday.
It was a gesture that spoke to Smith’s kind nature, and was emblematic of his first-to-arrive-last-to-leave work ethic all the same.
As he garnered a long-overdue first Pro Bowl selection, Smith is putting to rest a 2022 season that was one of monumental career change and continued dominance. As much as any other description, the standout linebacker’s journey from Chicago Bear to Raven was a roller-coaster.
“It was definitely a roller-coaster of emotions, like early on when [the trade] first transpired,” Smith told NFL.com on Friday at a community event to renovate the Donald W. Reynolds Boys & Girls Club. “I didn’t expect it during that time.”
Picked eighth overall by the Bears in the 2018 NFL Draft, Smith was a stellar presence in the middle of the Chicago defense from his rookie season through the middle of this past campaign. Seeking a contract extension, Smith requested a trade and conducted a hold-in prior to the start of the season with the Bears. When neither was fruitful, Smith returned to the fold and excelled as usual. Thus, when he was shipped to the Ravens in October it was a suddenly stunning turn of events that the linebacker now admits took him a while to come to terms with.
“It really didn’t settle in with me for a couple of weeks after I did it, but it was a great group of guys in Baltimore and they just helped me out so much,” Smith said. “And then with everything working out in my favor, busting my tail day in and day out, just being myself up there, it was amazing. I’m just excited to call that my home now.”
While it took some time for the finality of the trade to settle in for Smith, he quickly and deftly adjusted to the Ravens defense.
By season’s end, the Ravens were the No. 3 scoring defense and Smith had posted three interceptions, six passes defended, 4.5 sacks and a career-high 169 tackles. It marked the fifth straight 100-plus-tackle season to begin Smith’s career.
The quick adjustment was perhaps unexpected to many, but not to one of the league’s best off-ball backers.
“I don’t think I was really surprised by myself, because a lot of the things that they were running up there was some carryover from my past, like in college and my first year or so in the league with Vic Fangio,” Smith said. “It was a great transition. Then with the help of an amazing coaching staff and the guys in the locker room and out there on the defense, as well, that was just helping me with little things, little nuances here and there, and that stuff paid dividends and it helped my transition so much better.”
Having so quickly become a centerpiece for its formidable defense, Baltimore locked up Smith. The 25-year-old signed on for five years and $100 million with his new club. Unable to come to a pact on a new deal with Chicago, Smith has found a new sweet home in Baltimore and did so by representing himself in contract talks.
“It’s crazy how life works, but everything happens for reason and I’m just excited to be in Baltimore and that’s my place and they take good care of me,” Smith said, “and I’m just excited to call it home.”
While Smith’s contract situation has been decided, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson’s has not. Jackson and the team’s hopes for a new pact have lingered and now hover over the franchise while portending to be one of the offseason’s most prevalent storylines.
As fate would have it, Smith was taken 24 spots ahead of Jackson in the 2018 draft. Now they’re on the same squad and like Smith, Jackson is representing himself in contract talks.
Despite the similarities, Smith hasn’t talked with Jackson about the matter. It’s the QB’s business to deal with and Smith respects that above all else.
“I haven’t really chatted with him about anything,” Smith said. “Cause all our situations are unique in their own way. It would be wrong of me to try to go in and say this or that, because his situation is clearly different than mine, so I can’t really go in there and say you should do this or that. He’s a grown man at the end of the day, and he’s gonna do what he feels is best for him and I support him just from one man to another.”
Smith respects the process and that each of his teammates are their own men and dealing with their own unique situations. Regardless, he wants the dynamic QB back on Baltimore.
“Who wouldn’t want him back?” Smith said.
While Jackson’s future with the franchise remains uncertain, Smith has more than just settled in with Baltimore, he’s found a new home and realized in less than a full season much of what he’s been striving for.
He helped his team to a playoff berth and got his long-sought contract extension. A former two-time second-team All-Pro, Smith was a first-team All-Pro this year and earned what had proven to be a surprisingly elusive first Pro Bowl selection.
“Definitely feel like I should’ve been in more,” Smith said. “With being All-Pro and not being in the Pro Bowl, that was a little different. It’s an honor still at the end of the day. There’s a lot of people that would love to be out here in my position.”
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