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Roquan Smith trade: Should Giants bid for Bears’ disgruntled linebacker?

Could they even pull a trade off if they wanted to?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

It seems as though every time a good player expresses frustration with his contract and requests a trade, we ask if the New York Giants should trade for him.

While “building through the draft” is the common refrain, we have seen teams effectively use the veteran trade market to add talent to their rosters quickly. But for the most part, these questions are hypothetical for the Giants — more a way of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the roster than anything else.

But when Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith requested a trade Tuesday morning, the hypothetical is a bit more interesting than it might have been.

At this point the Giants’ refusal to spend a high draft pick on an off-ball linebacker is basically a meme. The last time a Giants’ GM drafted a linebacker in the first round was when George Young selected Carl Banks in 1984.

Smith was originally drafted by the Bears out of the University of Georgia with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft. Since then, he’s amassed 524 total tackles, 43 tackles for a loss, 14.0 sacks, 17 QB hits, 17 passes defensed, five interceptions (one touchdown), and a forced fumble. In short, he’s the kind of athletic, versatile off-ball linebacker that Giants fans have been wanting to see in Giants Blue for a long time.

While Smith is currently on the PUP list, he’s expected to play on his fifth year option and had been seeking a contract extension. Smith requested a trade when friction arose between he and the Bears’ front office.

So, let’s say that the Bears do grant Smith’s camp the freedom to seek a trade. Should the Giants be interested? And even if they’re interested, could the Giants even make a trade for Smith work?

Let’s look at the first question first.

Should the Giants be interested in Smith?

At first blush, the answer is “Well... YEAH!” After all, the Giants’ linebacking unit hardly inspires confidence. They have Blake Martinez coming off of a torn ACL and a collection of late round draft picks. They don’t have proven depth at the position, and they don’t have much athleticism or coverage ability.

Smith would instantly add a measure of athleticism that the Giants simply lack at the second level. He would also give the Giants a potential young, long-term answer beyond Martinez. All of that should be very attractive for the Giants.

Looking a level deeper, the question gets a bit more murky, and moves more to “Yeah, for the right price.”

First and foremost, while fans are craving elite linebacker play, the position simply isn’t that important to the modern game. Defenses don’t spend much time in base packages and often sub out linebackers for more defensive backs. Offenses often look to put linebackers in conflict and target them with mismatches. So if the Bears are looking for a rich return, like high round picks, a bevy of picks, or an elite player, they can look elsewhere.

But for the right price, Smith would certainly be useful for Martindale’s defense. His speed into the backfield would fit well in Wink’s schemes, and his coverage at the second level would help facilitate blitzes by other defenders.

So while Smith would be an asset for the Giants and they should certainly be interested, they can’t afford to splurge on a player who doesn’t play a premium position.

Can the Giants make a trade work?

This is the other side of that coin. Even if the Giants might be interested, they might not be able to get a deal done.

Given the Giants (current) cap problems, just having to take on Smith’s contract could block the trade. Smith currently counts for $9.735 million against the salary cap, and the Giants have just $5.2 million in cap space. The Giants are right up against the salary cap and might need to create additional cap space just to make it through the season. That, in and of itself, might be enough to make Joe Schoen say “thanks, but no thanks.”

But let’s say that Wink Martindale starts pounding the table for Smith and says he just has to have him. What could it take to get Smith from the Windy City to the Big Apple?

It can be difficult to assign an objective value to players, though Pro Football Reference attempts to do so with their “AV” (average value) metric. Smith has earned an AV of 11 and 14 over the last two seasons (respectively).

The 2020 draft day trade between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Bears could be a roadmap. The Eagles traded their 173rd and 227th overall picks to the Bears for the 196th, 200th, and 233rd overall picks. According to PFR, the picks the Eagles traded had an AV of 15, while the Bears’ picks had an AV of 14.

The Giants currently have fourth, fifth, and two seventh-round picks in the 2023 draft. They could potentially deal their fifth and one of the seventh-round picks, or even both of the seventh round picks. It’s unlikely that any — or even all — of the players those picks would net would be as good as Smith. However, the Bears would likely be moving him to shed salary cap and remove a potential malcontent.

It’s worth noting that PFR assigns value to the picks based on how the players selected have performed after being drafted. So while the Giants might be able to trade a collection of late-round picks for Smith, it would be like trading a handful of lottery scratch-offs for a known commodity. The Bears would certainly be justified in turning down the dubious potential of late-round future picks for a player currently in the NFL — even if he isn’t happy.

Unfortunately, the Giants have precious few tradeable pieces on their roster. The Giants lack depth along their offensive line, in their secondary, and many of their receivers are unproven (though they’ve shown potential in camp).

If the Bears wanted a player in return for Smith, they could ask for Saquon Barkley. Barkley is in a similar position as Smith as a 2018 first rounder on the final year of his rookie deal without a contract extension in place. Like Smith, Barkley is a great athlete for his position with the upside to be a premier playmaker, however that position isn’t a premium one. And like Smith, while Barkley was drafted in the top 10, he was drafted by a previous regime. The current GM and coaching staff have no ties to him.

The Giants might (or would be) be loathe to discuss a deal involving Barkley. While they might not want to sign Barkley to a long-term deal themselves (big contracts for running backs seldom work out), they likely do want his services for this season.

The Giants do suddenly have depth at edge defender, and moving a player like Oshane Ximines in addition to picks could entice the Bears. Like Smith, Ximines is in the final year of his rookie contract. And while he hasn’t been anything like the caliber of player Smith has been, he does play a premium position and is much less expensive than Smith.

That said, if the two teams do want to get a deal done, it might need to involve Barkley. The Giants would need to create salary cap space for Smith, and moving Barkley’s $7.217 million would get them most of the way there. We can’t escape the economics of the NFL, and the Giants’ salary cap situation seriously limits the moves they’re able to make. At least for now.

Final thoughts

The Roquan Smith situation does bear watching for the Giants. It isn’t often that a good, young player at a player of relative need even potentially becomes available. Off-ball linebacker might not be a premium position, and big contracts can become troublesome.

That said, Smith would certainly be a useful player and has a skillset the Giants just don’t have. He’s a high-volume tackler, a capable coverage player, has the upside to be a dangerous blitzer in Martindale’s scheme, and he’s young enough to be a part of the defense for another five years.

What about the realities of acquiring him? Can the Giants clear out the $9.3 million in cap space without taking on future debt or gutting their roster? Are the Bears willing to take the draft equivalent of a bag of balls for a player who was a top-10 pick just four and a half years ago?

Would they be willing to part ways with Barkley in order to bring in Smith?

The Giants’ offense has struggled in camp, and that has to weigh on the front office. Could they afford to give up an offensive starter for a defensive player? On the other hand, they have used Kadarius Toney and Wan’Dale Robinson out of the backfield, and did work out Devontae Booker recently. Could the Giants absorb the loss of Barkley well enough that adding Smith is a net gain?

We don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but they’re worth asking.

Giants fans would love to see the team acquire a potentially elite linebacker, but is it worth the price?