As expectations on the Bears shift during the second season of general manager Ryan Poles’ rebuild, there’s a relatively new emphasis on highly paid players playing up to their contracts.
Every team wants value, but last season the Bears weren’t going anywhere anyway. Did it matter much that defensive end Robert Quinn, with the highest salary-cap number on the team, underperformed? In a teardown year, not really.
That’s quite different now that the Bears are pushing to compete for a playoff spot, something quarterback Justin Fields and others have mentioned throughout the offseason. It’ll be tough to jump from being the worst team in the NFL to the playoffs, and that’s nearly impossible unless the Bears get what they paid for out of their top talent.
Poles has been a frugal spender as he carefully tries to preserve future cap space and keep the Bears out of the traps that ruined Ryan Pace’s final seasons. The team still has $16.4 million in space this season, 10th-most, and is projected to be second in the league with $85.9 million in space next season. Even now, the Bears have just five players among the NFL’s top-200 cap hits.
But after he was done cleaning up the financial mess he walked into, it was time to build the roster back up. And good players are expensive.
Poles’ landmark signing was linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, a two-time Pro Bowl player he brought in from the Bills on a four-year, $72 million deal in March. Edmunds, still just 25, carries a $14.7 million cap hit this season, trailing only safety Eddie Jackson at $17.1 million and wide receiver DJ Moore at $20.2 million.
When Poles took the job a 1½ years ago, common logic was that linebacker Roquan Smith was one of the most helpful pieces he inherited and it’d be an easy decision to sign him to an extension. That didn’t happen. The Bears didn’t see Smith as a takeaway machine, but they certainly think Edmunds is despite Smith having four more (nine to Edmunds’ five) and nearly triple the sacks.
When it comes to Moore and Edmunds as the crown jewels on their respective sides of the ball, Moore already has proven he’s going to be an overwhelming difference-maker, but Edmunds requires more imagination. It’s rarer to make game-changing plays at middle linebacker than it is in the secondary or as a pass rusher, and Edmunds was out with an injury for much of training camp.
When Edmunds was on the field, the Bears were impressed.
“We have a scheme that should take advantage of somebody in the middle of the field, but the dude’s like 7-feet tall,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said early in camp. “And the wingspan — that’s not happening. He shrinks the windows in the pass game, and his ability to play sideline-to-sideline really challenges an offense to be able to capture the edges.”
Edmunds isn’t quite that tall, but he is 6-5 with an 83-inch wingspan. The Bears also brought in T.J. Edwards for $19.5 million over three years to play alongside him.
Poles has been intent on overhauling the offensive line since the day he arrived but thought highly enough of guard Cody Whitehair to keep him at a $12.3 million cap number last season and $14.1 million this season. The Bears hope to play him at center, but an injury to left guard Teven Jenkins means Whitehair might play that spot while Lucas Patrick steps in at center.
The Bears are planning on free-agent signing Nate Davis at right guard, and he’s on a three-year, $30 million contract.
Then there’s defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, a signing that said more about the moves Poles didn’t make. He had no choice but to pick up Ngakoue, doing so after the first week of training camp, because the Bears simply didn’t have a viable pass rush.
While it was prudent of Poles to wait Ngakoue out until he moved off his desire for a multiyear deal, he still shelled out $10.4 million — the team’s fifth-highest cap hit.
That move came after Poles traded out of the No. 1 pick down to No. 9 in a deal with the Panthers that landed Moore but took the Bears out of reach of elite college pass rushers Will Anderson and Tyree Wilson. Rather than force it, Poles stuck to his draft board and filled a different need by picking right tackle Darnell Wright.
Ngakoue sat unsigned months into the offseason but still walked in as the most accomplished pass rusher on the roster. He never has had a season with fewer than eight sacks — a number no other player on the roster has ever reached.
All the high-priced moves Poles has made seemed logical, which is a good start, but smart decisions on paper don’t always look smart on the field. He’ll start finding out which ones will materialize when the Bears open the season Sept. 10 against the visiting Packers, and if most of it proves to be money well spent, making the playoffs seems like a realistic goal.
BEARS’ FIVE BIGGEST SALARY-CAP NUMBERS
WR DJ Moore, $20.2 million
Ryan Poles got Moore when he traded the No. 1 pick, and he seems to be worth every penny of a reasonable deal that runs through 2025.
S Eddie Jackson, $17.1 million
Poles couldn’t opted out of Jackson’s contract each of the last two seasons, but he has been a great fit with coach Matt Eberflus.
LB Tremaine Edmunds, $14.7 million
After refusing to give Roquan Smith $100 million over five years, Poles signed Edmunds for four years, $72 million.
G/C Cody Whitehair, $14.1 million
Like Jackson, Whitehair was an older, highly paid player at risk of being swept out by the new administration, but the Bears think he’s still a quality NFL starter at 31.
DE Yannick Ngakoue, $10.4 million
With a glaring hole in the Bears’ pass rush, Poles splurged on a one-year deal for Ngakoue a week into training camp.