BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Two of the Bears’ most important players on defense in 2018 never once stepped foot on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University for workouts before this month.
Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith did so, thanks to the same situation.
At the time a member of the Raiders, Mack held out of training camp in hopes of getting a better contract. He didn’t in Oakland, but did in Chicago when the Bears traded for him a week before the season. Mack would join up with the team at Halas Hall before the season opener with the Packers.
A few weeks earlier, Roquan Smith joined the team in Lake Forest after he held out with his own contract issues, keeping him out the entirety of the team’s training camp.
Neither player was really hurt by the absence of training camp. Mack had an impressive debut against the Packers in Week 1, coming up with a strip-sack and interception return for a touchdown. Smith got a sack on his first play of the season and each player didn’t look back en route to strong seasons.
How good would they have been with training camp? In 2019, the defenders, team, and fans will get that opportunity to find out.
This year both Mack and Smith are in camp, happy with new contracts and ready to contribute to a team which much higher expectations than when they weren’t in Bourbonnais a year ago.
“It’s pretty sweet,” said Smith of being in camp for the first time. “I haven’t had a training camp since 2017 in college, so, first pro training camp, I’m enjoying it.”
Smith seemed to enjoy his first season without the camp experience, showing the skills which the Bears saw when taking him with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He led the Bears with 122 tackles with five sacks, five pass deflections, with an interception in the playoffs and one against the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card game.
Yet, Smith believes training camp can only help to improve his skills for his second season, perhaps elevating him to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro level.
“Having that training camp is great. I kinda gets you into the mode; you’re not a rusty, as missing as I was last year. It’s definitely great. Then it’s a great time to bond with my teammates, so I’m really enjoying that. Just being around the guys each and every day.
“So it’s hard to complain with that.”
Like Smith, it’s hard to take issue with Mack’s performance last season despite the fact that he had no off-season with the Bears at all. The first-team All-Pro finished with 12 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles and helped transform the Bears’ defense into one of the best in the league.
Mack says the conditioning and mental part of the camp is the most beneficial part of being in the camp in 2019, but it’s playing the game itself that makes it so much better than a year ago. Staying away for a full month of training camp wasn’t exactly ideal, even if it didn’t have a negative effect on his play on the field.
“That was the hardest part – to be away from the game. My agent didn’t want me to say that,” said Mack. “But I love the game and it was real hard to stay away from it for so long. But this year I’m back in the grind and it feels great.”
The feeling is mutual for the Bears and the fans, who get to see two of their best defenders much earlier in 2019.