Bears salary-cap analysis: Flexibility for GM Ryan Poles; what’s next for Jaylon Johnson?


Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles holds all the cards, again, this offseason. He has the No. 1 pick — and the No. 9 pick. All the talk already is about what he’ll do at the top of the draft.

But Poles also has 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 can make a couple of moves to create even more.

The Super Bowl is done, and while the Bears — and 29 other teams — had already moved on to the 2024 offseason, it officially begins Monday. Free agency is a month away, but roster cuts can get underway.

Let’s set the stage for how well-positioned the Bears are to be major players in March.

Heading into the 2023 offseason, only two Bears had cap hits higher than $8 million. They currently have eight such players.

Starters on rookie contracts are always going to be the most valuable, financially, to the team. Justin Fields, Darnell Wright and Teven Jenkins reflect 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 hits are.

But there’s another player who is saving the Bears money, and that’s DJ Moore. He has the 18th-highest cap hit among receivers, and that’ll drop even more when Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson get new contracts.

Moore has two years left on his contract, but this is something to monitor. If he continues to be a star, he could get a new deal before 2025, so as to not enter that season on an expiring contract — especially one that’s below market value considering the numbers he’s putting up.

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Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards received big contracts at a position that teams rarely spend lavishly on in this era. For the first half of the season, Edmunds wasn’t living 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 bumps for Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson and Darnell Mooney. This year, per OTC, only Larry Borom is projected to receive one, and it’s modest.

Potential cap casualties

While we focus on the teams trying to spend as close to the cap 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 moving back to guard and then was eventually benched.

He was the consummate pro during his eight seasons with the Bears, playing three positions, but Whitehair’s time with the team is likely over.

Player Cap savings Dead money

$12.560M

$5.580M

$9.150M

$4.100M

$352,941

$11.00M

$1.60M

$0

The next question is Eddie Jackson, who has a massive difference between the cap savings the Bears would create by releasing him and the dead money they would incur. That difference increases if he’s considered a “post-June 1” transaction — teams can designate two players as post-June 1.

Post-June 1 calculations

Player Cap savings Dead money

$14.150M

$3.990M

$10.250M

$3M

$2.353M

$9M

$1.60M

$0

Jackson is 30. He missed five games in each of the past two seasons. He had five passes defensed and one interception in 2023. He’s still a leader for the defense, well respected in the locker room and at Halas Hall. He’s bought into Matt Eberflus’ defense. The Bears don’t necessarily need that cap space. Could they keep Jackson and then bring in a rookie or younger player to compete in camp? Or would they rather let Jackson have the opportunity 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 was fine but didn’t necessarily show the qualities of someone ready to step in as a starter.

It could be as straightforward as this: Is Jackson worthy of that cap hit in 2024 based on his ability? If the answer is no, the final remaining member of the 2018 defense will be playing elsewhere.

If the Bears do move on from Jackson and Whitehair, long snapper Patrick Scales — if re-signed — would be the only player still on the team who was acquired before 2020.

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I included guard Nate Davis in here, as fans seem to wonder about his future. Financially speaking, it doesn’t help the Bears at all — in fact, it hurts them — to cut him. Davis, understandably, had a slow start to his Bears career, followed by an ankle sprain. With a full offseason, it’s worth seeing if he can be the guard the Bears hoped they were getting last March.

Fullback Khari Blasingame and Borom, if he gets his pay bump, are the only other players with a notable gap between cap savings and dead money who aren’t indispensable starters. The Bears aren’t up against the cap where they need to make those kinds of cuts, but those contracts may give a rookie or cheaper player an edge. Both play important roles, though, with Blasingame as a fullback and core special-teamer and Borom as the versatile backup on the offensive line.

For those curious about cap implications for a potential Fields trade — per OTC, trading Fields would create $3.233 million in cap space and $2.771 million in dead money. It’s not a difficult contract to trade.

If Fields gets the fifth-year option, that’s projected to be nearly $22 million fully guaranteed for the 2025 season. The deadline for that decision is May 2.

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The Bears appear likely to use the franchise tag on cornerback Jaylon Johnson before free agency opens. (Scott Galvin / USA Today)

The Jaylon Johnson situation

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, the franchise tag window opens. Teams have until March 5 to use the tag, a one-year tender to keep a player under their control. Usually, these are used to buy time to come to terms on a multiyear contract before a mid-July deadline.

Johnson, a second-team All-Pro cornerback, is primed to get the tag. The two sides were so far apart that Johnson requested a trade in the fall. Things have gotten much better, at least publicly. Poles said last month that Johnson’s “not going to go anywhere.”

Still, it’s hard to envision the Bears and Johnson being able to agree to a deal before free agency opens. That’s where the tag comes into play, and it’s projected to be $18.4 million for 2024.

I asked two agents — who don’t represent Johnson — how they would approach an extension on Johnson’s behalf.

Both used Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander as a comp — Alexander signed a four-year contract in May 2022 averaging $21 million per year. One agent cited salary-cap inflation and that Johnson could begin with a market value of $24 million, which would blow past Alexander’s lead at the position.

That agent added, however, that the Bears, and teams in free agency, wouldn’t go for it.

The other agent suggested a short-term contract that would push for $62 million to $63 million over the first three years to get another shot at a big contract — Johnson turns 25 in April. He thinks it’d be tough for the Bears to justify more than $21 million per year.

Cornerback is the Bears’ deepest and youngest position. Opposite Johnson is Tyrique Stevenson, who has three years left on his deal, along with backup Terell Smith. Slot corner Kyler Gordon could get paid after the 2024 season. Johnson’s camp could argue that the cost control the Bears have at the position should offer more flexibility to pay their top corner.

The Bears could rebut that they’re well-stocked, but Johnson’s performance in 2023 was outstanding. Teams stopped throwing in his direction. It’s hard to find those corners.

Either way, the Bears have the cap space to accommodate either a tag for Johnson or a new contract. He’s far and away their top free agent, and no one else they’d re-sign would require big money.

Justin Jones’ market?

There is one other free agent who could earn a new deal well above a minimum, and that’s defensive tackle Justin Jones, who led the Bears in QB hits and tackles for loss. He also was the leader among 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 came in on a two-year, $12 million contract. He’ll be able to top that after two productive seasons.

One agent, who doesn’t represent Jones, suggested a three-year, $24 million contract but noted that might still be high 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 that could make it challenging for players in the next tier, like Jones, to get big contracts.

Poles has another year or two before he needs to worry about new contracts for his draft picks. The cap flexibility he has in 2024 matters for those future deals, though, and could be in the back of his mind during free agency. Most importantly, the Bears have flexibility. They can target top players. They have a window, financially, to take advantage.

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(Top photo of Eddie Jackson, 4, surrounded by teammates: Jason Miller / Getty Images)





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