Ryan Poles wanted to pay Roquan Smith last summer — he just didn’t want the $20 million annual salary the linebacker wanted. So, the Chicago Bears opened up 2023 free agency by dumping even more money into the position.
The Bears agreed to terms with four players on Monday after the two-day trading window opened leading up to the official start of free agency at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The headliner is Tremaine Edmunds, who the Buffalo Bills drafted with the 16th pick in 2018 — eight spots after the Bears picked Smith.
Edmunds is listed as the weak side linebacker alongside new middle linebacker TJ Edwards, who has also agreed to the terms. This makes Jack Sanborn a likely candidate to play on the strong side. The Bears also agreed to terms with guard Nate Davis, the first piece of an offensive line overhaul, and defensive end DeMarcus Walker.
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The Poles have spoken of being calculated in free agency, and the first three additions have at least one significant trait in common: all appear to be entering the early years of their careers. That’s essential for a team like the Bears that isn’t one or two pieces away from a serious dispute.
Edmunds, a former Virginia Tech star who has progressed the past five seasons with the Bills, was the youngest player in his draft class, selected a week before his 20th birthday. He will be 25 in May.
Edwards, a Lake Villa native and Wisconsin alumnus who coached the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles last season, turns 27 in August. Davis won’t be 27 until September, so the Bears can stay young even with a big push in free agency.
The Bears are betting on unlocking Edmunds’ skills in coach Matt Eberflus’ plan, which explains the four-year, $72 million contract with $41.8 million fully guaranteed. The $18 million annual average isn’t far off what Smith sought and ultimately received from the Baltimore Ravens after being traded midseason.
Edwards’ three-year contract is $19.5 million, so the Bears have two linebackers at $24.5 million a year and a Ravens second-round pick instead of Smith at $20 million. dollars per year.
As often as Eberflus refers to the importance of player length, Edmunds is ideal. He is 6-foot-5 and weighs 250 pounds and ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.54 seconds at the combine.
“Amazing range for a big man,” said a veteran scout. “He can swallow targets in the coverage area due to his size. Instant impact capability and he played in a heavy zone scheme. Bigger, faster than anything they had in Chicago.
Edwards went from an undrafted rookie in Philadelphia to a rock in the middle of one of the best defenses in the league. He’s especially strong against the run and had some production on the ball with seven broken passes last season, so the Bears now have a proven and durable pair of players for the second tier.
Davis has started 54 games over the past four seasons for the Tennessee Titans and has a strong drop and anchor, which makes him strong in pass protection. As much success as the Titans have had running the ball, he seems like a complete fit, and as an athletic move, he could project to play left guard.
If so, Cody Whitehair’s future could be uncertain. The Bears could save $9.9 million off the salary cap by designating Whitehair as a cut after June 1.
Unanswered is what the Bears will do on the defensive line to draw offensive linemen away from their linebackers. Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave has agreed to a four-year, $84 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers; Dre’Mont Jones of the Denver Broncos agreed to a three-year, $51.5 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks; and Zach Allen of the Arizona Cardinals replaced Jones in Denver for $45.75 million over three years. All three were potential technical threes for Eberflus’ defense and now they’re off the board.
It’s possible the Bears will pivot and sign an easier-to-find nose tackle and make a penetrating, disruptive defensive tackle a priority in the draft. They began to improve their meager passing rush by adding Walker on a three-year, $21 million contract with $16 million guaranteed. The 28-year-old had seven career sacks and 16 hits while playing 37% of the snaps for the Titans last season.
Walker, a second-round pick of the Broncos in 2017, joins his fourth team. He had 12½ sacks and 23 QB hits in his first five seasons. There wasn’t a lot of talent pressed into the market, and that’s still a problem the Bears need to address.
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Multiple sources said the Bears were involved in talks with 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey before securing a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Broncos. A source said the Bears’ offer to McGlinchey was around $17 million a year.
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Jawaan Taylor, the other high-end offensive tackle on the market, has landed a four-year, $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Bears therefore have pressing needs on the defensive line and more work to do on the offensive line, but getting wide receiver DJ Moore in Friday’s trade of the No. 1 draft pick to the Carolina Panthers added a veteran at a position of need, and the team has four of the top 64 picks starting with No. 9.
“They have young players and that’s always the key to agency unless you’re looking for the veteran you need to fill the void you have,” a personnel manager said. “But if you’re going to sign Edmunds, why sign Edwards? Why dump that amount of money on your linebackers when you have no players up front?
“When your roster lacks talent, your hands can be forced into free agency. They had to be aggressive and they were. At the end of the day, they have guys who should help them compete.