Roquan Smith did not believe he would be traded, not even with his Chicago Bears off to a losing start and his contractual future unresolved. If he was going to go, however, he wanted to be “playing for a title.”
That explains why Smith, 25, wore a near-permanent grin Wednesday as he spoke with reporters after finishing his first practice with the Ravens. The Bears were headed nowhere this season and had never made it past the wild-card round of the playoffs in Smith’s 4 1/2 seasons in Chicago. In Baltimore, the NFL’s leading tackler believes he will have a chance to chase a Super Bowl trophy as fervently as he chases opposing ball carriers.
He loves the idea that he might be the final piece.
“Yes, that means a lot,” he said, still wearing his new purple No. 18 jersey. “I have a great deal of respect for this organization [and] the way they handle things. I’m excited, and I know they’re trying to get over the hump and win the big game. So, I feel like I can be one of the guys that can help with that.”
For Smith’s new teammates, the trade, which cost the Ravens a second- and fifth-round pick in next year’s draft, was another sign that they’re all in on contending this year. They were already pointed in the right direction, coming off two straight wins and a favorable schedule ahead.
“We already knew what we were capable of,” outside linebacker Odafe Oweh said. “But now that [general manager Eric DeCosta] is trying to slowly formulate the squad and make us really the contender that we’re supposed to be, it just lets you know the intentions of what we’re supposed to do at the end of the season. So it makes us feel good, and it actually kind of drives us to even want to play better.”
Defensive end Calais Campbell agreed: “He brings a lot of energy, gives us just the confidence that allows us to go out there and do a whole lot more. I would love to be [defensive coordinator] Mike Macdonald with all these weapons, man. Just go out there and just draw up different ways to put us all on the field and make plays in different ways and take turns.”
Campbell said the defense, currently 20th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed, could be “really, really special” with Smith at its heart.
No one seemed more enthused than linebacker Patrick Queen, who will play beside Smith on the field and dress beside him in the Ravens locker room. Queen was a first-round pick out of a vaunted SEC program two years after Smith fit the same description. When Queen was at LSU, he even asked coaches for film of Smith because he regarded the Georgia linebacker as a role model.
He recalled one play on which the opponent ran a toss to Smith’s side and he beat a cut block to drop the ball carrier by the sideline. “I was amazed,” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve looked up to the guy.”
He believes they will be devastating as partners.
“Of course, two of the best linebackers in the league,” Queen said. “I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I just feel like that’s how it’s going to be. [We’re] two guys that fly to the ball, get their hands on the ball, get in the backfield and disrupt stuff. So, we’re definitely going to wreak havoc.”
Smith reciprocated Queen’s praise: “The guy is lightning; the guy plays good ball. He runs and hits just like myself, so I’m excited for the duo. I think it’s going to be very special, especially once we get rolling.”
The Ravens have played better against the run in recent weeks but still allow 4.4 yards per carry, more than they’re accustomed to. Smith could be the side-to-side, run-stuffing missile they have lacked in recent seasons.
Ray Lewis was the prototype for such players, and Smith was asked if he looked up to No. 52.
“I went down to one of his camps. It was years ago; I think I was still in college then,” he said. “But I have a great deal of respect for the guy. The guy is obviously a legend. [I] used to grow up in college and stuff watching all his hype videos, highlight videos.”
For the third time in four years, DeCosta made a significant in-season trade to bolster the team’s defense. Cornerback Marcus Peters made first-team All-Pro in 2019, adding rocket fuel to the surging Ravens as they won their last 12 games of the regular season. He signed a three-year extension and remains one of the Ravens’ key defenders.
DeCosta went back to the well a year later, trading a third-round pick and fifth-round pick for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue. That move did not pan out as the former Terps star produced just three sacks in nine games for the Ravens before departing in free agency.
Smith’s future is also an open question. He will be a free agent after this season and could become the highest paid inside linebacker in football. Will the Ravens make such a hefty investment at the same time they’re trying to negotiate an extension with quarterback Lamar Jackson?
“I’m not really focused on that right now,” said Smith, who like Jackson, represents himself in negotiations.
He seemed thrilled to accept the pressure that comes with being a high-profile acquisition for a division-leading team. He’s in for a hectic week as he learns Macdonald’s defense ahead of the Ravens’ game against the New Orleans Saints on “Monday Night Football,” but he plans to make an impact in his Ravens debut.
“I don’t feel like it’s an all-out cram session,” he said, looking ahead to the next five days. “Because I feel like I have a nice understanding of everything that we’re doing here on defense. That’s part of being a pro, and those guys in the locker room are getting me right, as well as the coaching staff helping me out big time. So, I feel very comfortable with where I’m at right now, and by Monday, I know I’m going to feel even better.”
He likes to say he “cooks with grease,” meaning the game is hot and popping when he’s in the vicinity.
“I think it’s going to be a wild atmosphere, but I think we’re going to be ready for it and we’re going to come out flying around,” Smith said of facing the Saints. “I know I’m going to control my part and fly around.”
Ravens at Saints
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2