LB Roquan Smith restored Ravens’ rough and ready mindset

When paying Roquan Smith on a tier with the richest defenders in the league fell outside the realm of responsible accounting for the rebuilding Chicago Bears, one general manager sprinted to the phone armed with the Baltimore Ravens’ checkbook.

Eric DeCosta sent second- and fifth-round picks, along with linebacker A.J. Klein, to the Bears in the Halloween 2022 trade that has since helped define the rebirth of the Ravens’ defense.

“He brought the Ray Lewis juice back for our generation,” Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said of Smith, the QB of Baltimore’s defense. “The grit, the everything, the leadership, his poise. His aggression. We needed that from our linebacker. Ro, he’s unbelievable. I’m glad we got him. Eric did a great job.”

The No. 8 pick in the 2018 draft, Smith’s stardom wasn’t exactly a secret. A standout at Georgia who regularly played on the national stage, he was the leading tackler in the NFL when the Ravens traded for him. Representing himself in negotiations, Bears general manager Ryan Poles talked Smith out of a holdout in August 2022 but never met the then 25-year-old’s demands for a $100 million deal.

DeCosta did just that.

Smith, who said negotiations with DeCosta were anything but easy, signed a five-year, $100 million deal with $45 million guaranteed to become the highest-paid off-ball linebacker in the league just over 12 months ago.

Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t fret whether that deal would lead to a divorce with Jackson, who is the frontrunner for NFL Most Valuable Player after self-represented contract talks with DeCosta resolved a season-long standoff over his own pay. Smith’s leadership, and work ethic, guided what defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald considered an easy decision to hitch the defense to the middle linebacker long-term.

“It’s a secret sauce,” Macdonald said. “There’s a magnetism to it, guys gravitate towards him naturally. He has great energy. … The way he plays, in terms of just getting to the football. If you aren’t playing with him, it pops out on tape, and guys realize that.”

The Ravens were No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense (16.5 points per game), opposing passer rating, rushing touchdowns allowed and sacks in the regular season.

Cash in hand, Smith continues to star on the field and in the locker room. He was just named All-Pro for the second time and last week racked up seven tackles, with two stops behind the line of scrimmage, in the divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans.

To head coach John Harbaugh, Smith’s success is a billboard for Baltimore and beyond revealing all the work he put in to get to this point.

“He wants to do the things that are required to be a great player and to be a great unit and then to impact your team,” said Harbaugh. “That’s what he’s all about – 100 percent – that’s what I love about him. He’s one of the top guys I’ve ever seen that way, and I think that does always impact everybody as a leader, for sure.”

Smith gets another chance to lead Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs with a Super Bowl trip hanging in the balance. With headlines naturally spotlighting 2023 MVP Patrick Mahomes and Jackson, Smith plans to nudge his way back into the narrative.

“We all know he’s an elite quarterback,” Smith said of the matchup with Mahomes. “He does everything well. I think personally just his ability to read coverages, extend plays. … He’s a great quarterback, we all know that, but so are we on defense.”