Ryan Poles wanted to pay Roquan Smith last summer — he just didn’t want to get to the $20 million annual salary the linebacker desired. So the Chicago Bears opened 2023 free agency by dropping even more money in the position.
The Bears agreed to terms with four players Monday after the two-day negotiating window opened leading into the official start of free agency at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The headliner is Tremaine Edmunds, whom the Buffalo Bills drafted with the 16th pick in 2018 — eight slots after the Bears picked Smith.
Edmunds figures to be the weak-side linebacker alongside new middle linebacker T.J. Edwards, who also agreed to terms. That 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 in a makeover of the offensive line, and defensive end DeMarcus Walker.
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Poles has talked about being calculated in free agency, and the first three additions have at least one significant trait in common: All appear to be entering the prime years of their career. That’s critical for a team like the Bears that isn’t one or two pieces away from serious contention.
Edmunds, a former Virginia Tech star who progressed over the last five seasons with the Bills, was the youngest player in his draft class, selected a week before his 20th birthday. He turns 25 in May.
Edwards, a Lake Villa native and Wisconsin alumnus who led the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in tackles last season, turns 27 in August. Davis doesn’t turn 27 until September, so the Bears can remain youthful even with a heavy push in free agency.
The Bears are betting on Edmunds’ skills being unlocked in coach Matt Eberflus’ scheme, 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 he was traded at midseason.
Edwards’ three-year contract is for $19.5 million, so the Bears have two linebackers at $24.5 million annually and a second-round pick from the Ravens instead of Smith at $20 million per year.
As often as Eberflus references the significance of players’ length, Edmunds is ideal. He’s 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds at the scouting combine.
“Incredible range for a big man,” a veteran scout said. “He can swallow up targets in zone coverage because of his size. Instant-impact ability and he’s played in a zone-heavy 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 league’s best defenses. He’s especially strong versus the run and had some on-ball production with seven passes broken up last season, so the Bears now have a pair of proven, durable players for the second level.
Davis started 54 games over the last 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 had running the ball, he looks to be an all-around fit, and as an athletic mover, he could project to play left guard.
If so, Cody Whitehair’s future could be up in the air. The Bears could save $9.9 million against the salary cap by designating Whitehair as a post-June 1 cut.
Unanswered is what the Bears will do on the defensive line to keep offensive linemen off their linebackers. Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave 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 deal 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 three-techniques 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 made a small start to improving 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 the snaps for the Titans last season.
Walker, a second-round pick by the Broncos in 2017, is joining his fourth team. He had 12½ sacks and 23 QB hits through his first five seasons. There wasn’t much edge-rushing talent on the market, and this remains an issue the Bears have to figure out.
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Multiple sources said the Bears were involved in talks with 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey before he secured a five-year, $87.5 million contract from the Broncos. One source said the Bears offer to McGlinchey got to about $17 million per year.
Jawaan Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the other premium offensive tackle on the market, landed 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 D.J. 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 got young players and that’s always key in free agency unless you’re hunting that one veteran you need to fill the one hole you have,” a personnel director said. “But if you’re going to sign Edmunds, why sign Edwards? Why dump that amount of money into your linebackers when you don’t have any players up front?
“When your roster is talent deficient, your hands can be forced in free agency. They had to be aggressive and they were. Ultimately, they’ve got some guys that should help them compete.”