It's almost that time! The
legal tampering period friendly conversation period during the annual Reeses' Senior Bowl has come and gone, and we're just over one month away from free agency for the NFL and the upcoming 2023 league year (March 15th). This is easily the most exciting time to be a football fan outside of the actual games themselves.
Let's not kid ourselves - this year should be particularly exciting to be a Chicago Bears fan. With the most cap space in the league by over $30M — and just under $100M total — GM Ryan Poles and his staff have more than enough ammo to theoretically pull off any move(s) they plan to execute. Also, this team needs all the quality players the front office at Halas Hall can muster.
Especially on defense.
I've broken enough tables to be eligible for application to the Bills Mafia when it comes to building around young franchise quarterback Justin Fields. The offense will be discussed later this week because in actuality, the value in free agency this year leans heavily toward defense. Plus, no matter how much their offense gets rebuilt, the Bears will never see true sustained success until their atrocious defense is addressed.
What does GM Ryan Poles seek to do in free agency?
That is a question worth asking before we proceed any further. The Bears have made it known their ultimate goal is to build through the draft. They're also an organization that plans to, from newly hired Team President Kevin Warren's own words, "not take any shortcuts." Some will suggest a preference to be stingy or "cheap" based on that comment.
The aforementioned suggestion is not anywhere close to being true. Based on league rules with the cap floor spending requirement, it's impossible for the Bears to be cheap this year. The NFL must spend a minimum average of 95% of their cap yearly league-wide.
By comparison, the Bears committed the least amount of spending and totaled at $85M below the league-wide payroll of $225M for 2022. A large chunk of their money — over $56M — was also counted as "dead cap" after the transactions for Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Nick Foles, and a handful of other poorly written contracts negotiated formerly by Ryan Pace and Joey Laine. Against my own frustrations, the Bears were not in any credible position to spend in 2022.
Everything changes in 2023. For the most part, their books have been cleared to open up with just over $92M available in cap space. I feel a good 15% ($13.8M approximately) will be spent on a handful of contract extensions, including the likely candidates of tight end Cole Kmet and cornerback Jaylon Johnson. The estimation leaves the Bears around $78.2M to spend on free agents and their eventual draft class, with the potential to add more.
All the money needs to be spent wisely on actual answers for the long-term. Based on my observations and conversations I've had with others, that is likely what Ryan Poles intends to do. There will be a mix of excitement and boredom, with moves projected to be within their initial plans.
The grand plan itself will be pretty straightforward. Going back to the idea of "not taking any shortcuts," you can rule out the idea of expensive short-term Band-Aids or veterans nearing the end of their NFL careers. Instead, the real money will be spent on players the Bears know without question shall become long-term answers. Those players must be worth that money, too, as he does not plan on stepping outside of his preferred price. Health and injury history will also play a huge role.
One example was from last year, when Ryan Poles swung and connected on a big deal for defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, only to see a failed physical nix that deal entirely. Ryan Poles will not be taking chances on oft-injured players, or (much) older "big-named" veterans, unless he feels they 1) can be had at a low amount of cost/risk and 2) are a good fit for the locker room. We all know as much as anyone what happens when you overspend in free agency on a regular basis.
The Bears will be major spenders. They will also be very selective. And do not rule out trades, either. After all, free agency is never just tied to unrestricted free agents.
With that all said - let's begin with their biggest weakness... defensive line.
Biggest names: Da'Ron Payne; Fletcher Cox; Javon Hargrave; Brandon Graham; Yannick Ngakoue; Jadeveon Clowney
Best fits: Da'Ron Payne; Javon Hargrave; Dalvin Tomlinson; Yannick Ngakoue; Dre'Mont Jones; Rasheem Green
Possible Trade and/or Cut Target(s): Brian Burns; Frank Clark; Jeffery Simmons; DeForest Buckner; Christian Wilkins
This Bears' defense is dead in the water without a dominant defensive line.
Especially without the motor at 3-tech. Justin Jones was brought in following the cancellation of the Larry Ogunjobi signing to fill that role. He proved to be an okay option but not nearly dominant enough, and at times he was outplayed by Armon Watts. Both the shade (1-tech nose) and the under-tackle (3-tech) require sizeable improvements.
They also need serious help at edge. Al-Quadin Muhammed was a "no-show" for most of the season, and the youth movement did not make much of a dent in the pass-rushing or run-stuffing department. The Bears need upgrades everywhere across the defensive line.
This is where I expect Ryan Poles to spend the most amount of guaranteed salary this coming off-season.
There are plenty of good options to be had. None stand out more than young Pro Bowler Da'Ron Payne, formerly of the Washington Commanders. His overall level of play has improved each season while rotating between 3-tech and shade, and he evolved into a true monster during the 2022 regular season. His stat line - 11.5 sacks, 64 combined tackles, 18 TFLs, 20(!) QB hits, and 5 passes defensed. The Bears totaled 20 sacks as a team in 2022. Payne enters free agency as a 25-year defensive menace looking to cash in on his impressive play.
Atop of his stats is the familiarity he has in the defensive terminology and scheme being built by Alan Williams under Matt Eberflus' supervision. Ron Turner and Jack Del Rio coach with their own take on the Tampa 2. Washington already extended Jonathan Allen's original contract to a massive deal for three more years at over $14M per season. The likelihood of Payne getting tagged — which would cost over $18M — or re-signed in Washington appears low. Da'Ron Payne checks all the boxes Ryan Poles seeks. Anything less than a 5-year deal at $19.5M per year will be a surprise.
If the Bears opt to proceed in a different direction, or even look to splurge a little more, then a handful of alternatives exist.
Javon Hargrave is on the older side at 30, but he's got plenty left in the tank and would be one of those "good fits" Ryan Poles might deem to be worth the decent-sized deal he'll command. Bears Assistant GM Ian Cunningham was also with the Philadelphia Eagles when Javon Hargrave signed as a free agent in 2020. The elite level of effort, play, and leadership he carries himself with would be a tremendous asset to a young rebuilding defense. His deal would likely be in the neighborhood of 3-years and up to $45M.
Dre'Mont Jones has developed into one of the better young interior D-linemen in the league and has averaged double-digits in QB hits for three consecutive seasons. The only issue I see is picturing him as a 3-tech full-time, although the Denver Broncos have utilized him at virtually each technique between 0 and 5 since his arrival in 2019. Dre'Mont could be a feasible option for a medium-sized deal between the 3-to-4-year range at up to $48M.
Dalvin Tomlinson might very well be the best "shade" or "nose" on the market. He will be 29 years old when the season starts, but he still has a good amount of playing time in his future. He has already proven himself between his time with both the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings that he can be productive in any front. His best position is as a "shade" at the 1-tech within a base 4-3 front.
The Bears need serious help in stuffing the run, and Dalvin Tomlinson is one of the very best. It's highly possible he can be signed alongside one of the top 3-techs on the market, with a base value contract of 3-years and $27M total. Or, they sign him and draft their answer at 3-tech if the negotiations get too crazy with their other targets.
Edge is a bit of a cluster for me when discussing actual "free" agents. At least before any big cuts or trades happen.
Yannick Ngakoue has produced premium results everywhere he has gone. He's also been with five different teams in his somewhat short time in the league. Most notably in 2020 when was traded from the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Minnesota Vikings, then from the Vikings to the Baltimore Ravens before the deadline. He is 28 but also is coming off a season that ended early due to injury. I think he can be had to a 3-year deal worth up to up to $13M on average.
This is where I see Rasheem Green being one of those under-the-radar type signings that won't "wow" a lot of people, but he brings with him a good schematic fit at defensive end with the versatility of playing inside. Between Green's stays with the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans, he's produced at a respectable level. A smallish deal between two-to-three years and $9-15M in total value is what I see him being signed to.
Now is the time I approach what I feel is the least discussed idea amongst the fanbase - a trade.
"But why would the Bears trade for anyone, ECD?" Simple, the script for this offseason could follow what former Bears GM Jerry Angelo did between 2004 and 2005 for Lovie Smith's first two seasons in Chicago. During that 2004 year, the Bears made a splash trade for Adewale Ogunleye, then spent their first two draft picks on Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson.
Ryan Poles was with the Kansas City Chiefs when they traded for former San Francisco 49ers defensive end, Frank Clark. And Ian Cunningham has been with both the Baltimore Ravens as well as the Philadelphia Eagles, who are always two of the most active teams in the trade market. Don't just use draft picks on collegiate prospects in the hopes they develop into anything credible. Use them to acquire quality football players, period.
The Carolina Panthers are set to undergo a major rebuild. Brian Burns, who has been an exceptional player in his young career, has played out his rookie deal. They have exercised the 5th year option on his rookie contract, but depending on what they decide to do, it's possible to see him moved for more draft capital.
Perhaps the Panthers use him as part of a package to deal for the Bears' top overall pick. Brian Burns would fit the mold for what the Bears seek as their "anchor" end in their base 4-man alignment. Once acquired, his next contract would likely be at least 4-years and over $70M in value.
The Tennessee Titans have Jeffery Simmons to consider, although they could just look to cut him with one year left and a huge pay raise set to trigger on his contract. Christian Wilkins could also be on the move with major changes on defense set to begin for the Miami Dolphins. Oh, and we can't forget about DeForest Buckner, who I'm sure is very high on Matt Eberflus' wish list. Expect the Bears to at least sniff around the trade market as they did multiple times last year.
There is no shortage of ways for Ryan Poles to fix the defensive line. We're going to see a literal tonnage of moves between DT and DE, which is absolutely necessary for any real chance of improvement to exist.
Biggest names: Tremaine Edmunds; Melvin Ingram; Cory Littleton; Kyle Van Noy; Leighton Vander Esch; Deion Jones
Best fits: Tremaine Edmunds; Azeez Al-Shaair; Deion Jones; T.J. Edwards; Bobby Okereke
Possible Trade and/or Cut Target(s): Matt Milano; Shaquille Leonard
I did previously describe the 3-tech as the motor for this defense. However, the "Will" linebacker is just as important. Truthfully, upgrades are needed at both "Mike" and "Will," after what I would describe as a mess following Roquan Smith being traded to the Baltimore Ravens. I write this with the acknowledgment Jack Sanborn played at a ridiculous level once being named the starter at "Mike" before injury.
Still, I cannot see competition not being brought in at "Mike," if not a major splash alongside a big move at "Will." I do expect Jack Sanborn to compete for a role either at "Mike" or perhaps the "Sam." Depending on how Ryan Poles attacks the off-season. Keep in mind that he will be coming off an ankle injury that ended his otherwise spectacular rookie season.
Currently, the draft presents a more likely avenue for improving this position group as a whole. I also think at least one decent-sized deal will be made in an effort to upgrade over Nicholas Morrow, who is scheduled to be a free agent himself.
I'll address the big names first.
Tremaine Edmunds makes sense on paper as a fit for the Bears' defense. He's produced at a high level in a stout Buffalo Bills defense as the "Mike" in a scheme nearly identical to what is being built in Chicago. However, after lengthy conversations with others and a closer look, he's not as good of a fit as previously imagined. Here is why.
If the Bears do sign him, he's stuck exclusively as a "Mike." He does not have the versatility to play "Will," which is the much more coveted LB position in Chicago's current scheme. I'd certainly welcome his arrival with open arms. I just don't have this as the most obvious signing, which will absolutely be a hefty deal for at least five seasons. He may want to top Roquan Smith's deal. We've already seen Ryan Poles balk once when being asked to pay top dollar for an off-ball linebacker.
A signing that I do see as being far more likely is T.J. Edwards. He's been one of the most underrated and productive players at linebacker in the league since his arrival with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019. TJ also has shown the versatility to play at "Mike" or "Will" while Jonathan Gannon — a Matt Eberflus disciple — used him in a variety of ways. My one question with T.J. Edwards is ball production.
That is a major area of consideration for Matt Eberflus. T.J. Edwards was credited with 7 pass deflections in coverage for 2022 alone but has just 2 interceptions, 5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in 47 career starts. Even so, with Ian Cunningham once again having a direct connection to a pending Eagles free agent in T.J. Edwards, I can see him being a target once free agency is underway. A 4-year deal around $10-to-12M per year, or $50M total, seems about right.
For familiar faces to reunite with Matt Eberflus, and really the whole Bears defensive staff, Bobby Okereke tops that list. Starting in 2021, he assumed the full-time job as the starting "Mike" alongside All-Pro Shaquille Leonard and immediately produced at a high level. However, 2022 was a pretty rough year for him in terms of ball production, outside of his outrageous 151 combined tackles. The Indianapolis Colts are about to start a rebuild of their own, and I don't think he'll get a fair offer from them as a result. He's a legit starter that won't break the bank.
How about Deion Jones, some will ask? He is, without question, the most explosive and productive player to hit the market. If healthy, he's a great fit for what the Bears search for at "Will."
Deion Jones also carries with him a significant amount of risk in terms of injury history and a rather messy end to his career with the Atlanta Falcons. He will have a decent-sized market once free agency begins. I do not expect to see him signed by the Bears unless it's for a rather small deal — compared to general expectations, at least — no greater than 3 years. If the Bears sign him, and if he stays healthy, he could be a significant boom. It'll depend on how much risk Ryan Poles is willing to take with Deion Jones.
An option that no one is talking about? Azeez Al-Shaair of the San Francisco 49ers. It's easy to be overshadowed by two of the best linebackers in football between Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. When Al-Shaair was pressed into extended action in 2021, he looked like he belonged. He also has the versatility to play at "Mike" or "Will" as he's been fairly active and productive in coverage when called upon.
Much like T.J. Edwards, I think Azeez Al-Shaair's contract value won't be outrageous, and a two-year deal with the opportunity for an extension in 2024 could be a nice low-risk/high-reward type signing to consider. At worst, he could add great depth to a unit that desperately needs it.
There aren't a lot of major cut or trade candidates that make sense for the Bears right now.
However, what piqued my interest is All-Pro Matt Milano has an out built into his deal for 2023 as a result of his recent contract restructure. I feel the Buffalo Bills are much more willing to allow Tremaine Edmunds to walk as opposed to cutting Matt Milano in a cap-saving move. In the highly unlikely event Matt Milano is made available, the Bears should be all over him. It could all come down to just what GM Brandon Beane feels is necessary to get those final pieces on offense to make that last leap into a Super Bowl.
Then there is Shaquille Leonard. Everyone knows who he is, everyone loves him, and he's earned his money for a reason. I don't see Chris Ballard, or Jim Irsay for that matter, being willing to move one of their only surefire stars unless they get incredibly desperate in gaining the ability to get their QB with the Bears' top overall pick.
We're going to wrap up the defensive side of the ball later this afternoon, and once it publishes, you can click here.