Current Roster Makeup:
Firstly, let’s assume that the Bears require 26 starting roles (not positions.) This assumes the standard 22 starters in a base 4-3 defense and a standard offense (3 x WR, 1 x TE, 1 x RB) plus the additions of 4 other key roles: NB, QB2, RB2, TE2/FB.
My assumption at this point is that 15 of those 26 roles are filled as follows:
· Offense 8/14: QB1, QB2, WR1, WR2, RB2, TE1, LT, RG (Fields, Simeon, Mooney, Claypool, Herbert, Kmet, Brax Jones, Jenkins.)
· Defense 7/12: CB1, CB2/NB, CB3, FS, SS, DT2, MLB (J. Johnson, Gordon, Vildore, E. Jax, Brisker, Justin Jones, Sanborn)
This plan above includes cutting three veterans who were starters going into last season: Whitehair, Lucas Patrick and Al Quadin Mohammed (already cut.) Together with Alex Leatherwood, these cuts result in additional cap space of $16M.
11 New starting roles:
With 15 players on the roster and a need to fill 26 starting roles, my plan sees the Bears addressing the 11 openings by signing 7 players through Free Agency and filling 4 roles through the Draft. Although 4 may seem like a risky assumption, I think it is reasonable given the draft capital we have. Also, I’m confident that in this draft we can adequately address needs at least 2 of these positions of need (RB2, LB3 and WR3) via day 2 and early day 3 picks.
Free Agency Spending Strategy:
While it’s true that the Bears have a lot of cap space, we also have a roster devoid of talent and depth. Unless the team gets incredibly fortunate with health- while simultaneously hitting multiple homeruns in the draft-- 2023 is NOT the year we are going to make a deep playoff run. So, blowing our entire cap in 2023 is not the right call-- nor is it the approach that Poles outlined when he took the GM position.
Poles wants to build long term through the draft. There will be a time for the Bears to go all-in to win a championship, but this is not that year. There are still way too many questions about this roster: Are Braxton Jones and Jenkins legitimate long term answers on the OL? Can Dom Robinson make a leap in Y2? Was the disaster that was Chase Claypool and anomaly over those 7 games and will he reach expectations after an offseason on the team? And, finally, can JF1 progress as a franchiser passer in his 2nd year in this system?
For this reason, my plan is squirrel away $12.5M in cap space which we can carry into next year. Or, possibly, use mid-season should unexpected talent become available. This money could be used for a real difference maker on the DL or at a skill position after we see how this season plays out. Normally, teams would reserve around $4M-$5M but given our rebuild situation and the fact that we are not likely to compete this year, it’s prudent have an extra ~$8M of flexibility which the team can carry forward or use if an opportunity arises.
Cap Space Breakdown:
i. $98.6M Available
ii. ~$13M for Rookies
§ 1st round: $7M
§ 2nd round (two picks): $2.9M
§ 3rd -7th rounds: $3.5M
iii. Remaining ~ $86M
iv. Cap Cuts, Save Total: ~$16M
§ Cut: Cody Whitehair, Save $5.8M
§ Cut: Lucas Patrick, Save $3.9M
§ Cut: Al Quadin Mohammed, Save $4M
§ Cut: Alex Leatherwood, Save $2.3M
v. Remaining Cap Available for Free Agency: ~$102M ($86+$16)
§ Extensions (see below) for Kmet, Mooney and Johnson: $23M
§ Priority FA’s: $61.5M
§ Other FA’s: $5M
§ Reserve/Carry Over Funds: $12.5M
Key Extensions: Extending our home-grown talent is a key message that Poles needs to be sending to players as we continue the next phase of this rebuild—this is especially true after he unceremoniously dumped Roquan and Quinn. It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to resign three of our key, young players. By using some of the cap space now, this frees the team up to make bigger moves in years ahead. Moreover, if we believe in the continued development of these three (very) young players alongside Fields then there will never be a cheaper time to sign them than right now. The proposed extensions for the Kmet, Mooney and Johnson looks like this:
Cole Kmet, 24, [TE1]. 4 Year (3 yr extension) $38M, $17M Guaranteed. 2023 Additional Cap Hit: $6M
His 23 current cap hit is $3.8M so the $38M extension lands him at $9.8M for the year. A 4 year deal just shy of $10M is a bit lower than Spotrac's estimate of $11.4 but I'm thinking a bit of a home town discount and early extension should save us a bit. At his age, he'll hit his 2nd pro contract at 27/28 which could be very lucrative if he continues to grow. Perhaps though something closer to $42/22/11 is right but even then we can backload it as needed and minimize the cap hit this year if we so choose.
Darnell Mooney, 25, [WR1] 4 Year (3 yr extension) $60M, $30M Guaranteed. 2023 Additional Cap Hit: $9M
His 23 current cap hit is $3M. This extension gives him $9M in extra cash this year taking is base up to $12M. Spotrac estimates a 4 year $60M contract at $15M/year. Given his age and the extension, $55M with a $27M guarantee felt right. Of course, WR salaries have been booming but we have not seen enough imho from Mooney to justify a huge contract. His production and injury history does not merit that much more at this point. I like the guy but he is not a #1 WR by any means. This contract structure does push numbers out to the future but it's manageable.
Jaylon Johnson, 24, [CB1] 4 Year, (3 yr extension) $50M, $25M Guaranteed. 2023 Additional Cap Hit: $8M
Johnson's salary cap hit in '23 is $3.5M. This would get him to $12M this year and then $12M per year for three additional seasons. This may be a bit low. Although Spotrac has his value as aprox $23M for a 3 year contract (~$7.5M/year) I think that estimate is way lower than what he's worth. I'd guess that $12M/year is hopeful but something like $15M/year is more realistic. If Johnson wants top 5 CB money then that will take some real soul searching from Poles. Johnson is our CB1 and although he doesn't have the ball production Flus wants, that may be partly due to his coverage skills.
Overall, if we needed to spend an additional $3M-$5M on these extensions then it would just mean carrying a little less excess cap into next year. I guess we'll see soon enough (although the extension talks could run right into the preseason.)
Note on Montgomery: As much as I like Monty, I just don’t think it makes sense to extend him in free agency. We can easily replace his production and contribution via a cheap pick in a draft which is loaded with RB depth. Even with a hometown discount and in a free agency market which is rife with talent, I don’t believe we should spend the $6 to $8M that he’ll be seeking. Because he’s respected by the team and a locker room leader, it is even more crucial that we resign the three players above to show the team that the Bears are committed to supporting their young players.
7 Key Free Agent Signings:
At the core of our FA strategy, the Bears should be looking to sign 2 Premium (Blue Chip) starters who operate in the trenches. These two veterans should be signed to 4-5 year contracts and will become core contributors who will help lead a playoff run in 2024 and beyond. We should expect that these two players will eat up aprox $17M each of the 2023 Cap.
With aprox $34M of the $61M available going to the top two signings, the remaining $26M will go to the other 5 key free agents who will take on starting roles. These players should be "good," which translates as: at or above league average at their respective positions. These FAs should generally be signed to 1-2 year contracts with a goal of replacing them with drafted players who develop into starters as their short term contracts expire. The average cost of these 5 players is $5M per year.
Of these 7 FA signings, my plan is that 4 are on offense filling these positions: LG/C, RT, WR3, TE2. Three are on defense filling 2 x DL positions and one starting WILL LB positions.
4 Key FA Signings on Offense: $32M in 2023 Cap Space
FA Kaleb McGary [RT], 28, 4 years, $68M, $37M Guaranteed. Cap Hit 2023: $16M
McGary was drafted in ATL under Bears current OL Coach Chris Morgan. The Bears want to continue to drive a strong running game and McGary was PFF’s 2nd highest rated run blocker in the league behind Trent Williams. Coupled with Tevin Jenkins on the right side, this duo could be special for the Bears league leading running game. This approach leaves Braxton Jones to develop as your LT of the future and allows you to keep Borom (still developing) as your Swing Tackle.
McGary will be a hot commodity coming into free agency. To entice him to the Bears, we’ll need to pay a premium. They key here will be the $39M in guaranteed money. That, hopefully combined with his existing relationship with the OL Coach who drafted him will be enough for him to choose the Bears.
FA Evan Brown [C], 26, 2 years, $12 million, $6 million guaranteed: Cap Hit 2023: $5M
This 5-year veteran is still only 26 years old and entering his prime.
Brown can start at either LG or Center but I really like him at Center. In 2021 Brown came in as a backup Center to replace All Pro Frank Ragnow for the Lions who went out for the year in week 3. During the next 13 games as the starting center Brown turned into a revelation. PFF graded Brown with an avg 66.8 score for the year, which includes a Pass Block grade of 72.4 and a Run Block grade of 62.9. His grade on True Pass Sets ranked him 5th amongst centers (efficiency 3rd.) His 98.9% pass block efficiency ranked 6th of 40 centers in the league. I believe his run blocking will improve if he could shift from the gap scheme run in Detroit to the Bears’ outside zone scheme which would leverage his physical traits.
Brown came out of SMU as an Athletic freak with a RAS score of 9.3: "Elite" Explosion grade (36" vert,) a "Great" Strength Grade (36 reps on the bench,) a "Good" agility grade. His size was "Ok" coming in at only 6’2.5" and 302 pounds. He went undrafted but made the Giants roster as a UDFA. As a prospect, the knock was size, footwork and technique. In his 5 years in the league, he has put on weight and now is listed as 320 on that compact frame with excellent speed and athleticism.
The ~$6M per year feels about right given his relatively young age and ascendance. I do like a Pocic from Cleveland but I don’t think he’s going to make it to free agency.
FA Parris Campbell [WR3], 25, 1 Year, $6M guaranteed. 2023 Cap Hit: $6M
Campbell, finally healthy, is coming off by far the best season of his career. He played in all 17 games and caught 63 passes for 623 yards and three touchdowns. This he accomplished on a team with basically nobody at QB. Campbell was a highly touted draft pick out of Ohio State (finished one year before Fields transferred there.) His speed (combine 4.31) and explosiveness along with decent size made him a high draft pick. His issue was a foot injury which took him a long time to recover from. He’s worth a bet with a lot of upside and he’s still only 25 years old.
Colts fans think he’s ready to get out of town and get a fresh start. His first 3 years did not go well due to injuries and now the entire franchise is in transition. The Bears should be able to entice him on a reasonable 1 year ‘prove it’ deal where he can bet on himself, his big play ability and JF1’s long ball to then position himself for a multi-year contract next year in free agency.
Josh Oliver [TE2], 25, 2 Year $10M, $5M Guaranteed. 2023 Cap Hit: $5M
Josh Oliver, 25, has transformed himself into one of the key blockers for Greg Roman’s vaunted running attack in Baltimore. "As far as his blocking, it is so much improved from a year ago, probably as much as any player I’ve ever worked with over one year’s time," Roman said earlier this season. Oliver graded as the sixth-best run blocker among all tight ends, per PFF.
Thing wasn’t supposed to be his strong suit. Oliver entered the NFL as a chiseled 6-foot-5, 259-pound pass catcher out of San Jose State who clocked a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. His best traits were his route running, speed, leadership and hard work—he was a project as a blocker. Despite injuries in his first two years, he seems to have turned the corner. This is absolutely an ascending, young player with NFL bloodlines and a great character who we can make a bet on now. He’s stuck in a totally crowded TE room in Baltimore and needs a new home and a shot to compete at TE1.
3 Key FA Signings on Defense: $29.5M
D’remont Jones [DT/DE], 26, 4 Years Cap Hit: $15.5M
This might be considered an overpay but Dre’mont Jones is young and ascending. He has developed into a strong interior pass rusher and can play both the 3T and line up outside in rushing formations.
Jones still has room to improve but if we have seen anything this last season, it’s the value of the interior pass rusher. I envision him as a key starter in a strong rotation which includes Justin Jones, a draft pick, a new NT (see below) and our developing DE’s (Robinson and Gibson.)
Bobby Okereke [LB2] 27, 2 years, $15M. Guaranteed $8M. Cap hit 2023: $7M
Okereke stepped up in a major way in the absence of fellow off-ball linebacker Shaquille Leonard, with his 72.9 grade ranking 23rd at the position. Okereke was particularly stout against the run, with his 13 defensive stops against the run tied for the 13th most. Okereke is now coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 100 tackles and 50 defensive stops
A’shawn Robinson [NT], 28, 2 years, $16M. Guaranteed $9M. Cap Hit 2023: $7M
Robinson, who ended the 2022 season early due to an inury in week 11 (torn meniscus) may be available at a bargain price. He is one of the highest rated run defenders in the league. The Rams are struggling with cap space so he will be a hard resign for them. Assuming he passes his physical, getting one of the best run defenders onto the Bears who ranked near the bottom of the league in run defense last week would be a great move. Coupled with the D’remont Jones signing (strong pass rush, weaker run defense,) Justin Jones (good all arounder at 3T,) a strong Edge rusher in the draft (Will Anderson) and hopefully the continued development of Gibson and esp Dominique Robinson, the Bears DL rotation will look significantly improved in 2023.
A word on the draft:
As discussed, the goal here is to get 4 starting roles from the draft:
Bears Trade #1 overall to Houston for Pick #2, Pick #33 and Round 6: Pick #188. My expectation is that our first 5 picks will be immediate contributors with 4/5 assuming starting roles as already mentioned.
Pick #2, Will Anderson, DE
After building the interior of the DL through the FA signings of Dre’Mont Jones, A’shawn Robinson and maintaining the investment in Justin Jones, the Bears pick up the best EDGE rusher in the class. I agree that Will Anderson has a slightly lower ceiling than Jalen Carter, but there is no question that Anderson has a much higher floor.
George Coach Kirby Smart before the start of the 2022 season said this when asked what the team needed from Carter in his third year:
"Just consistency, I think he and I have talked about stamina," said Smart. "He has flash plays and he’s really athletic, just playing with consistent effort. Because the talent is just oozing. It’s a matter of, can he play every play with maximum intensity and be able to sustain? He was in a three-man weave triangle last year and it was easy to sub him because you weren’t having any drop off when he went off the field.
"We need him to play more snaps this year. We need him to be on the field, we need him to be active, we need him to be able to play first, second, third in a row. Not first, second, and then some thirds. So can he do that? Can he go through offseason workouts and put himself in a position to be like Travon (Walker) from a stamina standpoint. And Devonte (Wyatt) worked so hard in practice that Devonte could play any number of snaps and still be fresh. We’ve got to get Jalen to be able to do that. And lead, set an example for the other players."
As it turned out, Carter could not do that. In fact, in his final year he played 30% fewer snaps than in the previous season. Not good. Jalen Carter has never played 400 snaps in a single season. Compare that to an NFL DT like Justin Jones who played over 700 snaps for the Bears this last year. Will Anderson plays twice as many snaps per game as Carter on average and that is reflected in his production numbers. Snap counts alone justify a higher value and a much higher floor. Carter, btw, was never elected team captain at Georgia.
The expectation for Anderson, who was elected permanent team captain in both his sophomore and junior years, is not only for him to contribute immediately as a high snap player who can defend both the run and the pass but for him to quickly develop into the Alfa leader of the Bears Defense—something that Carter is unlikely to do based on his track record at Georgia- where he was never elected team captain.
There is a significantly different tone from hearing the way Smart talked about Carter from the way Nick Saban talked about Anderson. Here’s Saban discussing Anderson’s attitude as a young sophomore when he was a bit banged up early in the season:
"College players seem to think i got to be a hundred percent to play and you know you have an opportunity when you're not a hundred percent right to show that you're a warrior - that you can go out there and play even to be player of the week when you weren't 100 and Will wasn't 100. He didn't practice all week and he got tired in the game but he persevered-- so he showed a warrior mentality that creates tremendous value to me as a coach.
I see him being the guy on our team that plays to the standard that we want guys to play to and he does it all the time and he does it on a consistent basis and he sets a great example for every other player who wants to be successful. I think he's got some leadership qualities that are going to grow and develop as we go through this season and in the future."
What a difference. The only knock Saban ever had on Anderson’s game was his ability to drop back in coverage which is not a requirement for a DE in our 4-3 defense. Some feel that Anderson may be too small to play DE in the Bears system but the primary concern about DE size is the ability to to set the edge in run defense. In fact, run defense is one of Anderson’s strengths. He led all power 4 edge players last year in PFF’s run defense grade with an 86.7. Anderson is not small. He reminds me a lot of Khalil Mack—similar height and weight coming out of college.
Pick #33, Round 2: Jahmyr Gibbs, RB
Gibbs is widely regarded as the 2nd best RB in this class and he is by far the best pass catching back. His skill is drawing comparisons to Alvin Kamara and Reggie Bush. For a team that needs to surround its young QB with offensive weapons, Gibbs would be an immediate contributor as RB1 for the Bears and a major upgrade after letting David Montgomery walk in Free Agency.
Some may think that taking a RB this early in the draft is a luxury the Bears can’t afford but the argument here is that you’re replacing your RB1 and you’re getting a player who can not only line up in the backfield but he can literally play WR and create mismatches all over the field. He’s exactly the kind of playmaker JF1 needs on this offense.
With the free agent starters acquired in the treches in the offseason, the Bears can afford to use this early pick on a play maker and pick developmental guys later in day 2 and day 3 in the trenches, which is what we end up doing in this mock draft.
Pick #53, Round 2: Cody Mauch, IOL
Mauch comes into the Bears as an athletic and aggressive OL prospect who we kick inside, letting him compete with Evan Brown as the starting LG or C. Given Brown’s historic strong play at C, LG feels like an easier transition for the former LT. Mauch is an uber athletic run blocker who plays with an attitude. Together with Braxton Jones to his left and Jenkins/McGary on the right, this revamped OL should help JF1, Gibbs and Herbert continue to dominate in the running game which will be critical for this team until we move into a dome or until JF1 shows serious improvement in his passing game.
Pick #64, Round 3: Keanu Benton, DT
Benton is a pounding DT who develops behind A’shawn Robinson for 1-2 seasons. A proven run stuffer who needs to develop his pass rush, Benton has the size and athleticism to eventually be a starter in the NFL and a long term rotational player on the Bears DL.
Pick #103, Round 4: Daiyan Henley, LB
Henley, 6’2" 232 lbs, is a high motor 4-3 linebacker who plays with hustle. He converted from WR to LB in college and is still mastering the nuances of the LB position. He is a developmental prospect with a high ceiling decent size and good athleticism. If he can learn in Eberflus’s defense, he has potential to be a starter in 1-2 years. He should be an immediate contributor on ST where his ball skills, hustle and commitment will make an immediate difference. His play exemplifies the HITS principles.
Back up and Development Picks:
Pick #133, Round 4: Nick Saldiveri, OT [OL6]
Pick #137, Round 5: Michael Wilson, WR
Pick # 150, Round 5: Mike Morris, DE
Pick #188, Round 6: Puka Nacua, WR
Pick #220, Round 7: Hunter Luepke, FB/TE
Filling out the 53
With the 26 starting roles in place via the existing roster (15,) key free agency signings (7,) the 2023 draft/UDFA (4,) we can move to filling out the rest of the roster.
The remaining 27 roles of the 53 roster will likely include (some version of the below):
ü 13 currently rostered (and developing) veteran depth players:
· Defense 5: Gibson [DE3], D. Robinson [DE4], Vildore [CB4], Elijah Hicks [S3] Jaylon Jones [S4]
· Offense 6: Borom [OL7], Kramer [OL8] J. Carter [OL9], VJJ [WR4] EQB [WR5] Ebner [RB3]
· Special Teams 2: Santos (K,) Gill (P,)
ü 6 Remaining Draft picks (non-starters listed above)
ü 3 low-cost depth re-signings from 2022 Roster:
· Armon Watts [DT5]
· Josh Blackwell [CB5]
· Patrick Scales (LS)
ü 5 Additional UDFA or FA Signings- ST/Depth/Value pieces. Could also be additional draft picks should we acquire more.