As Roquan Smith continues his training camp holdout, the Chicago Bears continue to take a beating in the court of public opinion.
And given the growing details, it’s certainly warranted.
With the New York Jets signing quarterback Sam Darnold to his deal Monday morning, Smith is now the last unsigned rookie. He also is the second-longest rookie holdout under the recent collective bargaining agreement. Chargers linebacker Joey Bosa, who is represented by the same agency as Smith, holds the record for the longest holdout.
According to multiple reports, the root of Smith’s holdout is over offset language in his contract. CAA, who represents Smith, wants the Bears to remove clauses and provisions that would allow the team the right to void portions of his guaranteed money in the result Smith is ejected or suspended.
CAA is adamant about not moving off this point because of the new helmet rule, which allows players to be ejected for initiating contact using the crown of the helmet. Given the rule’s gray area and the fact that Smith plays a tackle-heavy position, their concern about losing guaranteed money is valid.
On the flipside, the Bears don’t want to budge because it would set a precedent for other rookie contracts. Any agent would be able to use Smith’s contract as a template when dealing with the team. For instance, if a rookie who plays a position not heavily impacted by such a rule is suspended for another egregious offense, they want to reserve that right to withhold guarantees.
Other reports have suggested that general manager Ryan Pace is willing to operate in “good faith.” Meaning the Bears wouldn’t reclaim guaranteed money if Smith were suspended in the case of a suspension. In fact, Danny Trevathan confirmed the team didn’t take away guarantees when he was suspended last season for his hit against Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams.
But handshake agreements don’t offer security. If Ryan Pace is no longer the GM, who’s to say the next person in charge won’t exercise that provision in Smith’s contract and void his guarantees? No player or agent should feel comfortable without having anything in writing.
Smith’s holdout only plays into the negative narrative that always surrounds the Bears. The perception is that they’re a clueless, billion-dollar franchise that operates like a mom-and-pop shop. They’re the organization that can’t adapt with the times.
Folks see chairman George McCaskey, the face of the Bears ownership group, less as a boss and more as a quirky uncle or grandpa. He gives off the vibe of a guy who would give you a peppermint or hard candy for doing a good job. That kind of guy would love handshake agreements, right?
Part of that narrative is unfair. For years, they were labeled as cheap but finally shook that off with plenty of big-money deals. Whether they’ve signed the right players is debatable, of course.
This latest scenario plays into that part of the narrative, especially when you look at similar situations around the league.
The Buffalo Bills opted to remove similar language from Tremaine Edmunds’ rookie deal. Like Smith, the No. 16 overall pick also is represented by CAA and plays the linebacker position.
But this negotiation hasn’t been exclusive to linebackers or just defensive players. According to ProFootballTalk, New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley and Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley both secured language in their deals to keep teams from touching guaranteed money in the event of suspensions, fines and ejections.
As for Smith’s holdout, neither side is winning.
The Bears continue to give haters ample fodder. It erases goodwill in an offseason where they made key acquisitions and paid tight end Zach Miller the veteran minimum, allowing him to rehab his leg injury under the guidance of team doctors.
Meanwhile, Smith gets vilified by a select portion of the fan base. Some fans choose not to acknowledge the risks associated with playing pro football or support a player for trying to protect the money they’ve earned by being a top draft pick.
Those who take the meathead approach will refer to Smith as selfish or call him “Noquan” for not being in camp. You can bet if he struggles or misses time with injury, they’ll be the ones who point back to his holdout.
Aside from the PR hit, the holdout also stunts his development. The No. 8 overall pick is expected to start inside with Trevathan, and both are expected to be key cogs in the middle of the Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense. Not getting much-needed practice reps or playing in preseason games stunts not only his development but also the defense’s growth.
The only person who’s benefitting from the holdout is Nick Kwiatkowski. The third-year linebacker has been getting plenty of reps in place of Smith and he’s continued to make impact plays throughout the first week or so of camp.
However, the front office and coaching staff never envisioned Kwiatkowski as a starter this season. His primary role was to add linebacker depth and be a stalwart on special teams. The fact that his emergence is happening without Smith is very unfortunate.
For the sake of both parties’ reputations and development, an agreement must be reached. And it should be on the Bears to offer Smith some form of protection.
The days of negotiating on good faith no longer work. Not in a league where player-owner relations are at boiling point.
Because as the game evolves quickly, so should the charter franchise.