Roquan Smith's contract holdout rooted in dispute with Bears over NFL's new helmet rule, per report


As of Saturday, just two picks from the entire 2018 NFL draft remained unsigned. One of them was No. 8 overall pick Roquan Smith, the Georgia linebacker selected by the Chicago Bears.

With Bears training camp well underway and the Hall of Fame Game scheduled for Thursday, Smith has been holding out over a contract dispute. While much has been made about the NFL’s new offset rule, something many a rookie has tried and failed to negotiate against, Smith’s holdout is apparently instead centered around the league’s new helmet contact rule.

Why Roquan Smith is holding out from Bears training camp

According to the Chicago Tribune, Smith is refusing to sign a contract without a written promise from the Bears that they won’t take any of his guaranteed money if he gets suspended for an improper tackle.

Smith’s representatives at CAA Football are asking the Bears to include in the contract a written assurance that the team would not go after any of Smith’s guaranteed money if he were suspended under the new rule, the sources said. They all requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations.

The Bears have resisted putting that specific protection in writing. Instead, they have informally assured Smith’s representatives that they would be reasonable in assessing disciplinary action by the league against Smith under the new rule, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

So the Bears’ most important rookie is missing a significant chunk of his first training camp because the team doesn’t want to give him a written assurance they won’t do something that they say they don’t really want to do. Or at least they will try to be “reasonable” while figuring out whether to do it.

Bears head coach Matt Nagy partially confirmed the situation according to the report, saying the helmet rule dispute is “part of the issue.”

The new helmet rule simply states a player may not lower his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. How such a rule will be enforced has been an open question since the rule’s debut, and Smith clearly doesn’t want to take any chances of it allowing the Bears to take back some of his guaranteed money. Smith is in line to receive a signing bonus around $11.6 million, with the total value of the deal around $18.6 million according to Spotrac.

The Tribune points out that Smith has at least one reason to believe the Bears will give Smith a reasonable chance to avoid losing his guaranteed money. The team took no money from linebacker Danny Trevathan when he was suspended for a dirty hit against Davante Adams, reportedly judging the infraction to be the “result of a normal football play without malicious intent.”

Jets QB Sam Darnold in similar situation as Roquan Smith

The only other rookie still holding out from training camp is Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who is still stuck in a standoff over off-set language. As Yahoo Sports’ Shalise Manza Young lays it out, Darnold is seeking to be able to keep his 2021 salary even if the Jets cut him and he signs with another team.

In this case, offset language means getting Darnold’s full 2021 salary guaranteed even if the Jets cut the quarterback before the fourth year of his contract, and that he’d get the full amount even if he signed with another team.

The Jets, and most teams, prefer players not double-dip, and offset language provides that the Jets would pay only the difference between what Darnold signed for with a new team and what he was originally slated to make with the Jets.

What’s amazing about both these situations isn’t that they’re just centered around relatively small sums in multi-million dollar contracts for teams owned by billionaires, but that they’re based purely around the hypothetical.

Both the Jets and Darnold certainly hope the team never has to release the player, while both the Bears and Smith certainly hope that the linebacker never gets suspended for an illegal hit. And yet both teams are so worried about the possibility of losing the ability to recoup money from such unfortunate events, they’re willing to allow their player to hold out from camp, something that is actually real and actively hurting both sides.

Roquan Smith has already missed a week of Bears training camp. (AP Photo)
Roquan Smith has already missed a week of Bears training camp. (AP Photo)

Plenty of debate over Roquan Smith situation

Smith’s situation has drawn plenty of eyes, with much criticism focused on the player who is ostensibly hurting himself and his team by refusing to participate in training camp. Former Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt was particularly critical, calling Smith selfish:

“It really doesn’t make much sense. For a rookie to hold out because of some fine print, it’s pretty selfish from an agent standpoint to do that,” Wannstedt told reporters at training camp. “This kid needs to be here. These are valuable days. They play a preseason game a week from now. And you do not get these days back.”

That comment didn’t sit well with retired Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who fired back at Wannstedt on how much the coach gave back to the team in contract negotiations and comparing the situation to the old days of the reserve clause.

Thomas would later go on a Twitter rant in which he lamented the NFL’s draft and rookie contracts as evidence of the death of the free market, railed against the system as owner collusion to fix wages and accused owners of using the rules to “steal” guaranteed money from rookies.

Apparently, a retired Joe Thomas is not a quiet Joe Thomas. And as Smith continues to hold out, you can only wonder how much louder the discourse is going to get.

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