2024 Bears Offseason Primer: Rounding Out the Roster

| February 16th, 2024

The Super Bowl is behind us, and the NFL offseason has officially arrived. Now is the favorite time of year for fans of downtrodden teams like the Bears. Over the next few months, every team will magically turn their weaknesses into strengths and enter training camp with hopes of playing in next years’ Super Bowl — if you don’t believe me, just survey each fanbase in July.

The Bears might not be Super Bowl contenders in 2024, but they took a clear step forward in 2023 and have the resources to improve the roster this offseason, setting up another step in the right direction next fall. But before we get into the whirlwind of draft prep (the Combine starts February 26) and free agency (starts March 13), it’s worth taking a look at where the roster currently stands. Let’s examine:

  • What the Bears’ depth chart looks like as of today
  • Which Chicago impact players are set to hit free agency
  • What Chicago’s salary cap situation looks like
  • Bears players that could be considered for cuts or extensions

Current Depth Chart

Let’s start by looking at who the Bears currently have under contract for 2024. This is based on the 53 players currently signed as of February 7, sorted loosely into what a depth chart would look like below.

A few thoughts:

  • This looks much better than the version I did at a comparable time just a year ago, but it still needs quite a bit of work before it’s truly become a good roster.
  • The most notable weaknesses that jump out are WR2, WR3, and C, where the current ‘starting’ players are clearly not starting-caliber.
    • I would also argue CB needs some work, as I would feel a lot better about Terell Smith as the top backup than a starter.
    • Still, this is a much shorter list than last year, when I said the Bears needed to add 11 starters.
  • Beyond that, improved competition for starters and/or rotational depth is needed at RB, TE, interior OL (G/C),  DE, DT, and S.
  • The Bears still lack in top-level players. Their only All-Pro from a year ago, Jaylon Johnson, is slated to be a free agent, and they lack difference makers. I count DJ Moore, Teven Jenkins, and Montez Sweat as high-level players, with the Bears hoping youngsters like Darnell Wright, Gervon Dexter, Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, and Jaquan Brisker can rise to that level in due time.

Free Agents

Now let’s move on to looking at players from 2023 who are free agents. Here is the full list of unrestricted free agents grouped by position, with players who started at least 5 games for the Bears in 2023 indicated with an asterisk.

  • QB: Nathan Peterman
  • RB: D’Onta Foreman*
  • WR: Darnell Mooney*, Equanimeous St. Brown, Trent Taylor
  • TE: Robert Tonyan*, Mercedes Lewis
  • OL: Lucas Patrick*, Dan Feeney
  • DE: Yannick Ngakoue*, Rasheem Green
  • DT: Justin Jones*
  • LB: Dylan Cole
  • CB: Jaylon Johnson*
  • Long snapper: Patrick Scales

The Bears also have three free agents they still have some sort of control over:

  • WR Collin Johnson is a restricted free agent, meaning the Bears can choose to put a fairly inexpensive tag on him to keep him around for one more season.
  • WR Joe Reed and CB Josh Blackwell are exclusive rights free agents, meaning the Bears can bring them back to camp on a minimum-salary deal with no guaranteed money if they so choose.

All together, this list includes 18 players, 7 of whom started at least 5 games for Chicago in 2023. Some of those starters did not provide a whole lot of production and shouldn’t be hard to replace, but Jaylon Johnson in particular stands out as somebody who will demand a big contract or the franchise tag.

Salary Cap Situation

Let’s move now to the financial side of things and take a glance at where the Bears stand relative to the salary cap. We don’t know the exact salary cap figure for 2024 yet, but it is being projected to be at least $240 million, so we’ll use that value for a conservative estimate.

The table below shows the Bears’ current cap limit (grey) against their current cap charges (blue), giving a current listing of cap space (orange). All data is pulled from Over the Cap.

A few thoughts:

  • $46M is a useful number to keep in mind for right now, but the cap is flexible. Teams can always cut players or restructure contracts to clear more cap space.
  • It’s also worth noting that the Bears will not be able to spend all of this money in free agency. Some of it will need to stay in reserve for moves that come later in the offseason.
    • They will need more money than usual for the draft due to having two top 10 picks. Based on the 2023 rookie cap hits for players drafted at the picks Chicago currently owns, they will use about $10M in cap room on their draft picks this year.
    • Teams also typically want to have at least $10M in cap space headed into camp to maintain flexibility for in-season moves.
  • That leaves the Bears with around $26M in free agency spending power, which probably doesn’t sound like a lot. For comparison, their outgoing free agents had combined cap hits of close to $45M on their last contracts, and just franchise tagging Jaylon Johnson would cost $18.4M, seemingly most of their free agency budget.

Have no fear, however. The Bears will be able to create significant money with a few obvious cuts, so let’s take a look at the possibilities there.

Possible Cuts

General manager Ryan Poles has done an excellent job of clearing out overpaid veterans he inherited from the last regime, but there are still a few players on the Bears who could be cut to save money. The table below shows every player who would free up at least $1.5M in cap savings if they were cut. I want to be clear that I am not advocating cutting all of these players, simply showing all possible options.

A few thoughts:

  • DJ Moore, DeMarcus Walker, TJ Edwards, and Teven Jenkins obviously aren’t getting cut. I just try to use impartial criteria for how to list players, and they all could save significant money if cut. However, they are each playing up to their contract or being underpaid relative to production, so they are not going anywhere.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Eddie Jackson and Cody Whitehair seem like goners to me (Editor’s Note: JW was right, they’ve been cut). Neither is living up to their deal, and the Bears can save about $22M by cutting the two of them. That’s a no brainer.
  • Travis Homer and Khari Blasingame are both likely overpaid relative to what they provide, but they’re still relatively inexpensive, so they might stick around. They seem likely to reach camp, but could end up getting cut if younger, cheaper players take their roster spots (which will depend on special teams as much as offense, especially for Homer).

If we assume Whitehair and Jackson are cut and the others remain for now, that leaves Chicago with about $48M to spend in free agency, while still leaving cap space for the draft class and in-season moves. That number rises by about $3M if the Bears decide to trade Justin Fields, which has been heavily rumored, so overall we can figure the Bears will have about $50M to work with.

Extension Candidates

Of course, some of that money will likely be spent on their own roster. The most likely candidate here is Jaylon Johnson, who was one of the top CB in the NFL last year. I hope to have a piece in the coming weeks looking at what a long-term contract extension could look like for Johnson, but for now I’ll just throw in that the franchise tag for cornerbacks will have an $18.4M cap hit in 2024.

Outside of that, there are two other notable Bears who are still under contract but could be looking for early extensions this offseason:

  • Teven Jenkins has one year left on his rookie deal and could be looking to sign his 1st big contract.
    • This type of deal is usually the most team-friendly deal since it gives players financial security a year in advance, but the team acquires an additional year of injury risk in the process.
    • Given Jenkins’ long injury history – he has only played in 31 of a possible 51 career games – I am uncertain whether Poles will be willing to commit significant long-term money to him at this point.
  • DJ Moore still has two years left on his deal, but almost no guaranteed money. He was a star in his 1st season in Chicago, and could be looking for a new deal with more financial guarantees.
    • From Chicago’s perspective, it might be worth keeping their best player happy and around long-term to help aid the development of a newly drafted QB.

Wrapping it up

Here’s what we’ve found:

  • The Bears’ roster is in a much better place than a year ago, but still needs starters at WR2, WR3, C, and CB, though CB is likely addressed by re-signing Jaylon Johnson (either via a big extension or the franchise tag).
    • They will also need to add rotational players at TE, interior OL, DE, DT, and S.
  • Once they cut Cody Whitehair and Eddie Jackson, Chicago will have about $50M to spend on veteran talent, while still leaving money for their draft picks ($10M) and in-season moves ($10M).
    • This will also leave them needing to add a starter at S.
  • Re-signing Jaylon Johnson will likely eat up $18-20M of that space, leaving them a little over $30M to spend on veterans for the rest of the roster.

With that context in mind, I doubt we will see any top of the market free agent contracts handed out. Their big contracts this offseason were the extensions for Montez Sweat and Cole Kmet, plus whatever they give Jaylon Johnson (tag or contract) to keep him around. Rather, we should expect to see 3-4 mid-level starter contracts handed out for players who are starters but not stars. We already saw several of these types of contracts last year with guys like DeMarcus Walker, Yannick Ngakoue, Nate Davis, and TJ Edwards. Similar deals, likely for 2-3 years at $6-10M per year, can be expected at WR, C, DE/DT, and maybe S.

Filling in those spots will leave Chicago with a roster that has very few holes but still lacks in top-end talent. Those impact players are what really make for strong rosters, and the Bears will need to add them in the draft, where they will have two chances in the first nine picks to add stars to build their roster around.

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