Ryan Poles wanted to pay off Roquan Smith last summer — he didn’t just want the $20 million annual salary the linebacker wanted. So the Chicago Bears opened up free agency for 2023 by dropping more money at the position.
The Bears agreed to terms with four players on Monday after the two-day negotiation window opened leading to the official start of free agency at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. The headliner is Tremaine Edmunds, drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the 16th pick in 2018 — eight slots after the Bears selected Smith.
Edmunds believed him to be the weak midfielder alongside new quarterback TJ Edwards, who also agreed terms. This makes Jack Sanborn a likely candidate to play on the strong side. The Bears also agreed to a deal with guard Nate Davis, the first piece on the offensive line shift, and defensive end DeMarcus Walker.
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The Poles have talked about being counted in free agency, and the first three additions have at least one common feature: They all appear to be entering the early years of their careers. This is crucial for a team like the Bears that isn’t one or two pieces away from serious contention.
Edmonds, a former Virginia Tech star who has progressed through the past five seasons with the Bills, was the youngest player in his prep class, selected a week before his 20th birthday. He turns 25 in May.
Edwards, a Lake Villa native and Wisconsin graduate who led the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in tackles last season, turns 27 on August. Davis doesn’t turn 27 until September, so the Bears can stay young even with a boost in free agency.
The Bears are betting on Edmonds’ skills to unlock coach Matt Eberfels’ scheme, which spells out a four-year, $72 million contract with the entire $41.8 million guaranteed. The annual average of $18 million isn’t far from what Smith sought and eventually got from the Baltimore Ravens after he was traded mid-season.
Edwards’ three-year contract is $19.5 million, so the Bears have two linebackers at $24.5 million annually and a second-round pick from the Ravens in place of Smith for $20 million annually.
As much as Eberflus points out the importance of players’ height, Edmunds is perfect. He is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and ran 40 yards in 4.54 seconds in the scouting group.
“An incredible bunch for a big guy,” said one veteran scout. “He can swallow goals in area coverage because of his size. Instant impact ability and he played in a heavy area scheme. Bigger and faster than anything they had in Chicago.”
Edwards went from a sloppy Philadelphia rookie to a rock in the middle of one of the league’s best defenses. He’s particularly strong against the running back and had some production on the ball with seven passes cut last season, so the Bears now have a pair of proven and solid players for the second tier.
Davis has started 54 games over the past four seasons with the Tennessee Titans and has a solid touchdown and anchor, which makes him a solid pass guard. As successful as the Titans are at running the ball, he appears to be fully fit, and as a drive athlete, he can play left guard.
If so, Cody Whitehare’s future may be up in the air. The Bears could save $9.9 million on the salary cap by designating Whitehair as the post-June 1 cut.
What is left unanswered is what the Bears will do on the defensive line to keep the offensive linemen away from their own linebackers. Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave has agreed to a four-year, $84 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers. Dreymont Jones of the Denver Broncos has agreed to a three-year, $51.5 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks. Zack Allen of the Arizona Cardinals replaced Jones in Denver for $45.75 million over three years. All three were three potential Eberflus defense techniques and now they’re off the board.
The Bears will likely rotate and sign an easy-to-find nose tackle and make penetrating and devastating defensive tackle a priority in the draft. They got off to a small start to improve their meager pass rush by adding Walker on a three-year, $21 million contract with $16 million guaranteed. The 28-year-old had a career-high seven sacks and 16 QB hits while playing 37% of snaps for the Titans last season.
Walker, a second-round draft pick for the Broncos in 2017, is joining his fourth team. He had 12 sacks and 23 QB hits over his first five seasons. There weren’t many streaming talents in the market, and this was still a problem for the bears to solve.
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Multiple sources said the Bears were involved in talks with the 49ers on right-handing Mike McGlinchey before he was awarded a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Broncos. One source said the Bears’ offer to McGlinchey amounted to about $17 million annually.
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ other high-profile offensive tackle, Joanne Taylor, has secured a four-year, $80 million agreement with the Kansas City Chiefs.
So the Bears have pressing needs on the defensive line and more work to do on the offensive line, but getting wide receiver DJ Moore in a trade Friday from the No. 1 draft pick to the Carolina Panthers added a veteran in need, and the team has Four of the top 64 picks start with 9.
“They’ve got young players, and that’s always key in free agency, unless you’re looking for a veteran, you need to fill the only void you have,” said the personnel director. “But if you’re going to sign with Edmonds, why sign with Edwards? Why dump that amount of money at your fullback when you don’t have any players up front?”
“When your roster is short on talent, your hands can be forced into free agent. They had to be aggressive and they were. After all, they have some players that should help them compete.”
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