Bears linebacker legacy entices Tremaine Edmunds

Tremaine Edwards (49) celebrates after a fourth-quarter interception against the Patriots last season.

Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

A four-year, $72 million contract lured free agent Tremaine Edmunds to the Bears, but the chance to become the next great Bears linebacker sweetened the deal. 

“When you talk about great linebackers — in particular middle linebackers — I mean, why wouldn’t you want to come to a place like this? Edmunds said. “It’s such a great tradition. The Chicago Bears are known for their linebackers and I want to be able to write my story and be the next great linebacker here.” 

Continuing the legacy of Bears linebackers is a noble challenge for any touted linebacker entering Halas Hall. But Edmunds’ first order of business is living up to the more immediate legacy of the linebacker he is replacing — three-time All-Pro Roquan Smith. 

With all the major holes the Bears had to fill following a 3-14 season, general manager Ryan Poles’ biggest splurge in free agency was at a position of strength last year — a playmaking linebacker who already was on his way toward continuing that lineage of linebacker greatness in Smith.

When the Bears declined to pay Smith top-dollar and traded him to the Ravens for a second-round draft pick in Week 9 last season, coach Matt Eberflus said Smith’s lack of “ball production” was the key factor in not meeting his price. Smith was responsible for eight takeaways in four-plus seasons with the Bears. 

But Poles instead paid a premium (four years, $72 million with $50 million guaranteed) for an off-the-ball linebacker who is a two-time Pro Bowl player but has even less ball-production than Smith had — Edmunds had seven takeaways in five seasons with the Bills. 

What’s the difference? Scheme-fit and body type. Edmunds is 6-5, 250. Smith is 6-1, 236. 

“The length. The speed. The coverage ability in terms of just the space that he covers,” Poles said. “And Matt [Eberflus] and his group think they can take him over the edge with some of the ball production.”

Therein likes the crux of the Bears’ M.O. under Matt Eberflus. They are so fixated with scheme fit — a big reason why they had no interest in offensive tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. — that they had no use for a player in Smith who transcends scheme. The luxury of Roquan Smith — that you just put him on the field and let him make plays — was a detriment to this regime. 

Eberflus knows what he wants and after a season in charge, he has a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. Edmunds, who was 19 when he was drafted in the first round in 2018, fits the Eberflus profile. He was a team captain with the Bills. And he’s H.I.T.S. principle guy. He takes pride in in his effort more than any skill. 

“Because that’s something you can’t teach,” said Edmunds, who turns 25 on May 2. “All the guys are talented in the league. But when you talk about effort, you talk about relentlessness and guys that care. Guys that finish plays. Guys that give their all. 

“You’ve got to figure out what’s going to set yourself apart, and I’m going to give it my all every time I step on that field. That’s how I was raised. That’s my identity. That’s who I am as a player.” 

So the Roquan Smith trade could turn into a win-win. Smith has a five-year, $100 million contract with the Ravens, playing in a 3-4 defense that seems even better suited to his skills. The Bears could have a more cost-efficient playmaker in Edmunds — plus whatever they get out of the 53rd pick in the draft. 

But whether it’s the legacy of Smith or Lance Briggs or Brian Urlacher or Dick Butkus that Edmunds is trying to live up to, he’s got a big job ahead of him. And he can’t wait.

“I’m looking forward to that opportunity, that challenge,” Edmunds said. “I’ve got my hard hat on, ready to work.” 

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