Chicago Bears’ aggressive start to the free hand has a common thread as young players enter their prime – Chicago Tribune

Ryan Poles wanted to pay Roquan Smith last summer — he just didn’t want to match the $20 million annual salary the linebacker wanted. So, in 2023, the Chicago Bears opened up a free hand by putting even more money into the position.

The Bears agreed four-player agreements on Monday, after the two-day negotiation window opened that led to the official start of free agency at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The headliner is Tremaine Edmunds, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2018 with the 16th pick — eight spots after the Bears picked Smith.

Edmunds is the weak-side linebacker alongside new middle linebacker TJ Edwards, who has also agreed to the terms. That makes Jack Sanborn a likely candidate to play on the strong side. The Bears also settled on deals with guard Nate Davis, the first part of an offensive line revamp, and DeMarcus Walker on the defensive end.

Poles has spoken of being freelance and the first three signings have at least one key trait in common: all appear to be entering the prime of their careers. That’s crucial for a team like the Bears who aren’t a part or two away from serious arguments.

Edmunds, a former Virginia Tech star who has progressed with the Bills over the past five seasons, became the youngest player in his draft class to be selected a week before his 20th birthday. He will be 25 in May.

Edwards, a Lake Villa-native Wisconsin alumnus who led the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in tackles last season, turns 27 in August. Davis won’t turn 27 until September, so even with a powerful boost in his free hand, the Bears can stay young.

The Bears are banking on Edmund’s skills being unlocked in trainer Matt Eberflus’ program, which explains the four-year, $72 million deal with a $41.8 million full guarantee. The annual average of $18 million isn’t far from what Smith was looking for and ultimately got from the Baltimore Ravens after being traded midseason.

Edwards’ three-year contract is $19.5 million, giving the Bears two linebackers for $24.5 million a year and a second-round pick from the Ravens in place of Smith for $20 million a year.

As often as Eberflus points out the importance of player 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,” said a seasoned scout. “Because of its size, it can swallow targets in zone coverage. Instant impact ability and is played in a zone-heavy scheme. Bigger and faster than anything they had in Chicago.”

Edwards went from an undrafted freshman in Philadelphia to a rock in the middle of one of the league’s best defenses. He’s particularly strong against the run and had some on-ball production last season with seven interrupted passes, so the Bears now have a pair of proven, durable players for the second tier.

Titans offensive lineman Nate Davis takes on the Texans for a snap on Oct. 30, 2022 in Houston.

Davis has started in 54 games for the Tennessee Titans over the past four seasons and has a strong drop and anchor, making him strong at pass protection. As successful as the Titans have been at running the ball, he appears to be in all-round fitness and, as an athletic player, could see himself playing left guard.

If so, Cody Whitehair’s future could be up in the air. The Bears could save $9.9 million on the salary cap by setting Whitehair as a post-June 1 cut.

It’s unclear what the Bears will do on the defensive line to keep offensive linemen away from their linebackers. Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave agreed to a four-year, $84 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers; Denver Broncos’ Dre’Mont Jones agreed to three-year, $51.5 million contract with Seattle Seahawks; and the Arizona Cardinals’ Zach Allen replaced Jones in Denver for $45.75 million over three years. All three were possible three-point moves for Eberflus’ defense and now they’re off the board.

It’s possible for the Bears to turn and sign an easier-to-find nose tackle and prioritize a penetrating, disruptive defensive tackle in the draft. They made a small start to improve their meager pass rush by signing Walker on a three-year, $21 million deal with a $16 million guarantee. 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 Broncos second-round pick in 2017, joins his fourth team. He had 12½ sacks and 23 QB hits in his first five seasons. There hasn’t been a lot of breakthrough talent in the market, and this remains an issue for the bears to figure out.

Multiple sources said the Bears were involved in talks with the 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey before he secured a five-year, $87.5 million contract from the Broncos. According to one source, the Bears’ offer to McGlinchey was about $17 million a year.

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Jawaan Taylor, the other premier offensive tackle on the market, has signed a four-year, $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.

So the Bears have urgent needs on the defensive line and more work on the offensive line, but wide receiver DJ Moore in Friday’s trade of the No. 1 draft pick to the Carolina Panthers added a veteran in a position of need, and the team has four of the 64 best picks, starting with #9.

“You have young players and that’s always the key in your free hand, unless you’re chasing that one veteran you need to fill the one hole you have,” said a human resources director. “But if you want to sign Edmunds, why sign Edwards? Why put so much money into your linebackers when you don’t have players up front?

“If your squad is talent-deficient, your hands can be forced into free hands. They had to be aggressive and they were. At the end of the day, they have some people who should help them compete.”

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