Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles holds all the cards, again, this offseason. He has No. 1 pick – and the No. 9 picks. All the talk is about what he will do at the top of the draft.
But the Poles also have the Bears well-positioned to be aggressive in free agency.
According to Spotrac and Over the Cap, the Bears are projected to have the eighth-most cap space in football, and they could make a couple of moves to create more.
The Super Bowl is over, and while the Bears — and 29 other teams — have moved on to the 2024 offseason, it officially begins Monday. Free agency is still a month away, but roster cuts can begin.
Let’s set the stage for how well the Bears are positioned to be major players in March.
Going into the 2023 offseason, only two Bears have a cap hit higher than $8 million. They currently have eight of those players.
Those who start on rookie contracts are often the most valuable, financially, to the team. Justin Fields, Darnell Wright and Teven Jenkins show that, and you don’t see Braxton Jones, Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker and Tyrique Stevenson on this list. That’s how low their 2024 cap hit is.
But there is another player who saves the Bears money, and that is DJ Moore. He has the 18th-highest cap hit among receivers, and that will drop further if Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson get new contracts.
Moore has two years left on his contract, but it will be something to keep an eye on. If he continues to be a star, he could get a new deal before 2025, so as not to enter that period of an expired contract – especially one that is below market value considering the numbers he put.
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Tremaine Edmunds and TJ Edwards received big contracts at a position that rarely costs teams this season. In the first half of the season, Edmunds didn’t live up to the contract, but he finished strong.
The “proven performance escalator” provides bonuses to fourth-year players who were not selected in the first round. Last year, that meant pay raises for Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson and Darnell Mooney. This year, per OTC, only Larry Borom is expected to receive one, and it’s a small one.
Potential casualties of the cap
While we’re focusing on teams trying to spend as much as possible, the NFL also has a spending “floor.” That may have played a role in the Bears keeping Cody Whitehair last season. He opened 2023 as the starting center before returning to guard and later being benched.
He was the consummate pro during his eight seasons with the Bears, playing three positions, but Whitehair’s time with the team may be over.
The next question is Eddie Jackson, who has a huge difference between the cap savings the Bears will make by releasing him and the dead money they will have. That difference widens if he’s considered a “post-June 1” transaction — teams can designate both players as after June 1.
Calculations after June 1
Jackson is 30. He has lost five games in each of the last two seasons. He had five passes defensed and one interception in 2023. He is still the leader of the defense, well respected in the locker room and in Halas Hall. Matt Eberflus’ defense bought him out. The Bears don’t necessarily need that cap space. Can they keep Jackson and then bring in a rookie or younger player to compete in camp? Or would they rather give Jackson a chance to find a new team in free agency if they believe it’s time to move on?
Elijah Hicks got plenty of playing time in place of Jackson and Jaquan Brisker last season. He is good but doesn’t necessarily show the qualities of someone who is ready to act as a starter.
It could be as straightforward as this: Is Jackson worth that cap hit in 2024 based on his ability? If the answer is no, the last remaining member of the 2018 defense will be playing elsewhere.
If the Bears move on from Jackson and Whitehair, long snapper Patrick Scales — if re-signed — will be the team’s only player acquired before 2020.
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I’m including guard Nate Davis here, as fans seem to be wondering about his future. Financially speaking, it doesn’t help the Bears — in fact, it hurts them — to cut him. Davis, understandably, had a slow start to his career with the Bears, followed by an ankle sprain. With a full offseason, it’s worth seeing if he can be the guard the Bears hoped they would be in March.
Fullback Khari Blasingame and Borom, if he earns his salary, are the only other players with a significant gap between cap savings and dead money who aren’t necessarily starters. The Bears aren’t up against the cap where they have to make those kinds of cuts, but the contracts could yield a new player or a cheaper player. Both have important roles, though, with Blasingame as a fullback and special teams core and Borom as a versatile backup on the offensive line.
For those wondering about the cap implications for a potential Fields trade – per OTC, the Fields trade would generate $3.233 million in cap space and $2.771 million in dead money. This is not a hard sell contract.
If Fields picks up the fifth-year option, that’s expected to be around $22 million fully guaranteed for the 2025 season. The deadline for that decision is May 2.
The Jaylon Johnson situation
On Tuesday, February 20, the franchise tag window will open. Teams have until March 5 to use the tag, a one-year tender to keep a player under their control. Usually, it is used to buy during the arrival of the terms of a multiyear contract before the mid-July deadline.
Johnson, a second-team All-Pro cornerback, was primed to earn the tag. The two sides were so far apart that Johnson requested a trade in the fall. Things are getting better, at least publicly. Poles said last month that Johnson “isn’t going anywhere.”
However, it’s hard to imagine the Bears and Johnson being able to agree on a deal before free agency opens. This is where the tag comes into play, and it is projected to be $18.4 million for 2024.
I asked two agents — who don’t represent Johnson — how they would approach an extension for Johnson’s name.
Both used Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander as a comp – Alexander signed a four-year contract in May 2022 averaging $21 million per year. An agent cited salary-cap inflation and that Johnson could start at a market value of $24 million, exceeding Alexander’s lead at the position.
That agent added, however, that the Bears, and the teams in free agency, will not participate in it.
Another agent suggested a short-term contract that would push $62 million to $63 million over the first three years to get another shot at a big contract – Johnson will be 25 in April. He thinks it will be hard for the Bears to justify more than $21 million per year.
Cornerback is the deepest and youngest position for the Bears. Opposite Johnson is Tyrique Stevenson, who has three years left on his deal, along with backup Terell Smith. Slot corner Kyler Gordon could be paid after the 2024 season. Johnson’s camp could argue that the cost control the Bears have at the position should give them more flexibility to pay their top cornerback.
The Bears may deny they have a good stock, but Johnson’s performance in 2023 was remarkable. Teams stopped throwing in his direction. Those corners are hard to find.
Either way, the Bears have cap space to accommodate a tag for Johnson or a new contract. He’s far and away their top free agent, and there’s no one else they’ll re-sign that needs a lot of money.
Justin Jones’ market?
There’s one other free agent who could get a new deal above the minimum, and that’s defensive tackle Justin Jones, who leads the Bears in QB hits and tackles for loss . He also leads interior defensive linemen in playing time by a wide margin, while also being a leader in the room.
When the Larry Ogunjobi deal fell through, Jones landed a two-year, $12 million contract. He could top it after two productive seasons.
An agent, who does not represent Jones, suggested a three-year, $24 million contract but noted that could be too long for Jones. Defensive tackles set to hit free agency include Kansas City’s Chris Jones, Baltimore’s Justin Madubuike, Miami’s Christian Wilkins, Seattle’s Leonard Williams and Cincinnati’s DJ Reader, and it could be challenging for players in next level, like Jones, to get big contracts.
Poles has a year or two before he has to worry about new contracts for his draft picks. The cap flexibility he has in 2024 is important for future deals, however, and may be in the back of his mind during free agency. Most importantly, the Bears have flexibility. They can target the top players. They have a window, financially, to exploit.
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(Top photo of Eddie Jackson, 4, surrounded by teammates: Jason Miller/Getty Images)