This morning, news broke that Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith isn’t happy with Chicago and wants a trade. Apparently, the impending 2023 free agent feels the team hasn’t engaged in contract negotiations in good faith, and is looking to land with a team that will pay him what he’s worth.
Naturally, Falcons fans (and Georgia fans, there’s considerable overlap there) were immediately intrigued. Given Smith’s ties to this front office, the team’s clear need for additional impact defenders, and the fact that Chicago appears to be in some form of a fire sale, it’s natural to wonder whether Atlanta might pursue a trade for Smith.
So hey, let’s talk about it. Is it possible, and why would Atlanta do it?
Why a trade makes sense
Smith has blossomed into a terrific linebacker, and is just 25 years old. He hasn’t allowed a touchdown in coverage the past three seasons, per Pro Football Reference, and brings quality physicality to the role while rarely missing tackles. He’s a capable enough pass rusher, authors the occasional big play, and is generally both young and good. It’s hard to imagine the Falcons not having at least cursory interest in adding a quality defender at a critical position, especially one who may still not have hit his peak as a player.
Critically, the money works here. Smith is making over $9 million this year, but the Falcons have over $12 million in cap space on hand right now, meaning they could make the trade without moving Deion Jones. The cap would be tight if they did, but if they somehow flipped Jones to Chicago in addition to draft compensation or found a partner to move him, they’d have plenty of space to keep adding contributors. Smith would need an extension after this season—and this can’t be a one-year rental, given that the Falcons may not be all that great this year—but Atlanta’s about to have a war chest of cap space in 2023 they could break into to bring Smith back.
Atlanta’s also not set at inside linebacker. I’m a big fan of Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen could obviously blossom into a star if a lot of things break right, and this year having Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski, and maybe Deion Jones means they have enough solid options to put a solid group on the field. Smith would still be a real upgrade, both now and in the future, and would help lift a defense this team is eager to ensure is great sooner than later. A long-term group of Smith, Walker, Andersen, and players to be determined could be a very strong one.
Also, we have to mention that Smith is a Bear, and one who was drafted by ex-Chicago general manager and current Terry Fontenot sidekick Ryan Pace. Atlanta’s certainly leaned heavily on Pace’s familiarity with former Bears this offseason to stock the roster, and given the rapport Fontenot and Pace apparently developed in New Orleans, if he stumps hard for his former player the general manager is likely to give it real weight. Fontenot, for his part, has been clear this team is not going to be shy about seeking improvement where they can, and he and other members of the front office have specifically mentioned trades as potential avenues.
Finally, Cordarrelle Patterson wants him.
Roquan smith is the tweet!!!!— cordarrelle patterson (@ceeflashpee84) August 9, 2022
Why a trade doesn’t make sense
Smith is a very good player, but is it in the team’s best interest to hand the largest inside linebacker contract in football over to him next offseason, as they’ll almost certainly have to do? That’s something the team will have to carefully weigh, given that even their major cap windfall will disappear pretty quickly after new contracts for impending free agents and additions at key positions of need, especially both the defensive and offensive lines.
There’s also the fact that the Falcons just drafted Troy Andersen and, if all goes well, may have a couple of other worthy long-term options in Mykal Walker and Rashaan Evans, though Evans is obviously on just a one-year deal at the moment. If the team is content with the group they’ve painstakingly built—and Fontenot and company have put a lot of energy into remaking it—they may not want to use draft capital that could be used to bolster other positions with more glaring needs. It’s not clear what it would take to get Smith, but if it’s Day 2 selection Atlanta may well consider it too expensive.
Will it happen?
I’m saying no, but it’s not a particularly confident no. The temptation will be there and the Falcons may well pick up the phone, but there are other teams with glaring needs who may be willing to make larger offers, assuming that the Bears are even willing to move Smith. This may be a situation that drags out, with Chicago trying to repair the relationship and get Smith back on board, which means there may not be a quick resolution or even a trade at all. The Falcons won’t want to overpay and other teams may well be willing to, so as always, I’m going to assume this won’t happen.
Still, the Falcons would like to field a great team next year, and the opportunity to add an impact defender in the prime of his career does not come along every day. Terry Fontenot’s patience and care in building the roster to this point has been admirable, but it has also clearly been in service of setting up the team to make splashes once they’re out of cap hell, which will happen this coming offseason. A terrific young linebacker would help this team try to contend this year, which everyone associated with the Falcons wants to do, and would be on impact player to cross off the list for 2023.
Because they can fit Smith under the cap today, because he could bolster a defense the Falcons are eager to build, and because they’ll be able to pony up to give him the contract he’s seeking heading into 2023, this isn’t a possibility that should be dismissed out of hand. Keep an eye on this situation in case Fontenot and the Falcons decide to take a big swing at bolstering the roster both for now and the future.