Nobody is safe.
That has to be the message to the Bears’ locker room after general manager Ryan Poles dealt linebacker Roquan Smith to the Ravens on Monday — one day before the trade deadline Tuesday — for second- and fifth-round draft picks in 2023 and veteran linebacker A.J. Klein.
Smith was in the final year of his contract, but the Bears could have kept him on the franchise tag the next two years for about $38 million total. He is 25 and entering his prime — the exact kind of player a team should want to build around.
Instead, Poles made his most surprising — and polarizing — move as GM.
When Poles traded edge rusher Khalil Mack, Mack was 31 and coming off a season in which he played seven games. When he moved defensive end Robert Quinn last week, he traded a 32-year-old who had managed one sack all season.
This is different. This is his Mitch Trubisky moment.
When predecessor Ryan Pace traded up to draft Trubisky second overall in 2017, he knew he forever would be linked to his decision. Poles will be, too, particularly if Smith — who started the season as a ‘‘hold-in’’ and publicly accused Poles of negotiating in bad faith — continues his run as one of the NFL’s best inside linebackers while playing for one of the most well-run franchises in the league. The trade could destabilize a Bears team that already struggled emotionally with the loss of Quinn.
Which players on the Bears are untouchable now? Quarterback Justin Fields, probably. But the Smith trade even might color the way Poles looks at Fields at the end of the season. If this season is meant to show Poles whether Fields can — or can’t — be the Bears’ franchise quarterback, he just stated he’s not blindly wed to any of the players he inherited from Pace.
Not that there are many left. Take away Smith, and only 10 of the Bears’ 22 starters Sunday against the Cowboys were on the roster when Poles was hired in January. Only two defensive starters remain from 2020: cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safety Eddie Jackson.
The Bears are expected to have $116 million in salary-cap space next season, plus at least three extra draft picks acquired from the trades of the last week. If Poles allocates those resources to the kind of players a modern offense needs — multiple receivers and at least one tackle — Fields will be better for it. That is, if the Bears decide he’s worth building around. Hitting Fields with a midseason bombshell gives him another thing to try to overcome.
The deal Monday surely was noted by Jackson, who inherited Quinn’s defensive captaincy Sunday amid a resurgent season, and running back David Montgomery. If Poles can trade Smith, he certainly can trade them — and there should be a market for both.
As much as the Bears praise Montgomery, he increasingly has been on the wrong side of a platoon with second-year running back Khalil Herbert. Herbert averaged 6.2 yards per carry Sunday and Montgomery 3.5. Letting Montgomery leave via free agency in March would, in ordinary years, yield a compensatory draft pick. The Bears, however, figure to spend so much on new players as to make that a moot point.
The Bears don’t have an intriguing backup for Jackson, but they don’t have one for Smith, either. Undrafted free agent Jack Sanborn might get the first crack at the starting job.
When he dealt Quinn to the Eagles on Wednesday, Poles said he was confident certain defenders would ‘‘continue to hold itdown and be leaders.’’ He listed four players: defensive lineman Justin Jones, Johnson, Jackson and Smith.
One of them has been traded since. And another might be.