Bears general manager Ryan Poles paid the Commanders handsomely for the privilege of eventually paying defensive end Montez Sweat handsomely.
The Bears traded a second-round pick for Sweat hours before the NFL trade deadline Tuesday. When he joins the Bears after a physical, the clock will start on negotiating a contract extension. Sweat and his agency will have leverage — the Bears, after all, traded the most valuable draft choice of any NFL team at the deadline — while Poles will have merely the threat of giving him the franchise tag in 2024.
The solution could look like the extension the Packers gave outside linebacker Rashan Gary on Monday — four years, $96 million, with about $35 million guaranteed. The Bears can afford it; they’ll have the most salary-cap space in the league next year.
The Bears view Sweat, 27, as a long-term answer to their edge-rusher problem. Since Poles and coach Matt Eberflus took over at the start of last season, the Bears are last in the NFL in sacks, pressures and quarterback knockdowns. They were last in the NFL with 20 sacks last season. They’re last with 10 this season.
A 2019 first-round pick from Mississippi State, Sweat has 6½ sacks halfway through his fifth season — only seven players have more — after averaging almost 7½ his first four years. Pro Football Focus considers him the league’s best run defender over the last 3½ seasons.
“Montez is a huge addition to our team,” Poles said in a statement. “He is not only a great player but a great person. We expect him to help elevate our defense.”
Until Tuesday, Poles took half-measures to try to fix the Bears’ pass-rush problem, signing DeMarcus Walker to a three-year, $21 million deal last offseason and giving Yannick Ngakoue a one-year, $10.5 million deal in August. They’ve combined for 3½ sacks.
Even if the move answers one of the biggest questions on the Bears’ roster, it creates many more. Why is a 2-6 team adding to its roster? Is adding Sweat, a perfect fit in a 4-3 defense, the same as a commitment to keeping Eberflus and his scheme beyond this season? Why trade a second-round pick now when Sweat, in theory, could have been available as a free agent in March? And why did the Bears part with what figures to be a high second-round pick when the 49ers gave up a conditional third for fellow Commanders standout Chase Young?
Sweat was more valuable than Young; the latter’s torn anterior cruciate ligament from two years ago could have turned off potential suitors, a league source said.
Poles felt he needed to move now on Sweat, figuring that another team would trade for him and keep him next season on, at least, the franchise tag. A free-agent class that on Halloween projects to include edge rushers Danielle Hunter, Josh Allen and Brian Burns could be depleted by March.
Trading for Sweat means the Bears won’t have to draft an edge rusher high — and there aren’t any deemed worthy of either of the two high first-round picks the Bears are expected to have in 2024. The Bears are expected to eye a quarterback in the draft, barring a Justin Fields turnaround, and could always recoup the second-round pick by moving the other pick. Or even trading Fields.
In the interim, though, Sweat makes the Bears better. That’s good for team culture and bad for the Bears’ draft status. Owning the one-win Panthers’ pick makes the latter more tolerable.
A year ago Thursday, Poles traded a second-round pick for Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool, believing he was better than whoever would be available on the free-agent market. Claypool was, instead, a disaster.
Sweat isn’t Claypool — he’s more accomplished and much more likely to stay with the team throughout his prime. For him to be worth what the Bears paid the Commanders — and will have to pay Sweat soon — his prime had better be good.