OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ahead of his final season at LSU back in 2019, Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen was asked by a coach which former college linebackers he wanted to study as part of their film review.
Queen asked for video of Deion Jones, a fellow LSU product and 2016 second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, and Roquan Smith, the former Georgia superstar and Butkus Award winner who had been drafted eighth overall by the Chicago Bears the previous year. Little did Queen know Smith would become his teammate in Baltimore just a few years later.
“I just remember the one play against Oklahoma [in the Rose Bowl], they ran like a toss to his side, and he beat the cut block and ran to the sideline and made the tackle,” Queen said. “I was just amazed. Ever since then, I’ve always looked up to the guy. Just being able to see him on our team and playing beside him, I love it.”
General manager Eric DeCosta loved the two-time second-team All-Pro linebacker enough to send Chicago second- and fifth-round choices in next year’s draft for Smith’s services for only the remainder of 2022. It marked the third time in his four seasons as general manager that DeCosta made a significant trade deadline addition on the defensive side of the ball with the first two bringing different results.
In 2019, the arrival of Marcus Peters helped transform a middling defense into one of the NFL’s very best the rest of the way, prompting Baltimore to sign the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback to a contract extension. But the following year, the acquisition of Yannick Ngakoue made little impact with only three sacks in 11 games before the former Pro Bowl edge rusher departed as a free agent a few months later.
Of course, Baltimore is hoping Smith has an impact more like Peters, envisioning him fortifying the middle of the defense and turning the inside linebacker position — which has been more problematic than not since C.J. Mosley’s departure in 2019 — into a strength with Queen now in the midst of his best season. Leading the NFL in tackles this season and ranking second only to eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner — whom the Ravens attempted to sign in the offseason — in tackles since 2018, the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Smith credits his attention to detail for his on-field success and doesn’t anticipate having much trouble learning Baltimore’s playbook in time for Monday’s night tilt with New Orleans.
Smith is one of only two players — the other being Shaquille Leonard of Indianapolis — to record at least 15 sacks and five interceptions since 2018, reflecting his playmaking ability at a position not held with as much esteem in the modern pass-happy NFL as in the past. The Ravens clearly view Smith as an exception.
“It starts early in the week, and I think that starts with knowing your opponent inside and out and knowing what they like to do in certain situations — really all situations,” Smith said. “Then, just going out and giving everything I have and with my God-given ability and then the coaches putting me in the best possible situation to succeed. I think with a combination of all those things, I think it aligns for great success more so.”
Few would deny Smith’s arrival improving a Ravens defense currently ranking 20th in points allowed per game, 21st in yards per play allowed, and 17th in efficiency, but it’s fair to wonder if his positional impact will be enough to slow the likes of Buffalo and Kansas City in potential playoff matchups, especially after many clamored for a deadline addition at cornerback or more offensive firepower at wide receiver. Pro Football Focus has questioned Smith’s play-to-play consistency and ability in pass coverage while other sources such as Next Gen Stats don’t reflect such concerns.
And there’s the question of his status beyond 2022 as Smith was reportedly seeking a contract extension worth $20 million per year over the summer. Like Lamar Jackson, Smith doesn’t employ a certified player agent, which could further complicate his long-term future since the Ravens are all but guaranteed to use the franchise tag on their star quarterback if the sides haven’t struck a contract extension by March.
After requesting a trade from the Bears over the summer, Smith downplayed urgency to engage in contract talks with his new team immediately.
“I’m not really focused on that right now,” Smith said. “Everything has happened really, really quickly, so I’m just trying to focus on honing in on this playbook right now and getting to that once I get to it. My main focus right now is learning the playbook, getting a great relationship with the guys, and then going from there.”
Of course, time will tell what kind of fit Smith will find with Baltimore as it isn’t always easy to change teams on the fly. While Peters rapidly emerged as a defensive leader and continues to be one of the more respected veterans in the current locker room, Ngakoue wasn’t deemed a great fit despite being a former University of Maryland standout who grew up in nearby Washington and addressing an obvious need on paper.
One Raven doesn’t foresee Smith having any issues fitting in, however, predicting his new teammates will be the ones gravitating to him.
“He’s always been a leader,” said veteran defensive end Brent Urban, who spent 2019 and 2020 with the Bears. “When we were in Chicago, he’s the guy who gets the defense rolling. Not only just with what he says, it’s by his play, man. He’s one of the best linebackers in the league.
“We’re all going to kind of follow his lead. As soon as guys see him play, they’ll kind of realize and follow suit.”
If that proves to be the case, the Ravens will have a tough time letting Smith go, especially if his presence leads to a deep playoff run.