The Washington Commanders are expected to use the franchise player designation on defensive lineman Daron Payne this week. It’s an early blow to the Chicago Bears’ big offseason plans, which included leveling up the three technique via free agency or the 2023 NFL Draft.
General manager Ryan Poles has the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, so technically, he controls whether the Bears land Jalen Carter, the blue-chip defensive lineman from Georgia. Carter’s upside is higher than Payne’s, and if Chicago wants the three-tech with the highest ceiling, staying at No. 1 overall and picking Carter is the way to go.
But it’s almost universally expected that Poles and the Bears will trade out of that top pick with a quarterback-needy team. And if they do, they’ll sacrifice control over whether Carter lands in Chicago. As a result, free agency remains a somewhat controlled environment for the Bears to operate in.
Even if Daron Payne is off the block, the Chicago Bears should have plenty of quality defensive linemen to choose from when free agency kicks off on March 13 — the first of a two-day negotiation window.
Philadelphia Eagles star Javon Hargrave will likely be the most sought-after interior defender now that Payne is spoken for. He set a career-high with 11 sacks in 2022 after starting all 17 games for one of the top defenses in the NFL. Hargrave has started all 33 games over the last two seasons and has steadily improved as a pass rusher over the last four years. His 91.1 Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade was the second-highest among all interior defenders last season.
Spotrac projects Hargrave will ink a contract north of $20 million per season. The Chicago Bears have plenty of cap space to meet that demand, and then some.
The only downside with Hargrave is his age. And while 30 isn’t ancient (and he just turned 30), he’s inching closer to his career decline. At best, the Bears will get a player who will maintain his 2022 level of play for two more seasons. Chicago should have an adequate replacement by the time Hargrave is no longer an asset.
If the Bears want to target a younger player still ascending, Denver Broncos’ soon-to-be free agent Dre’Mont Jones could be that guy. At 26 years old, Jones has been rock solid over the last three seasons. He’s totaled 6.5 sacks in two of the last three years despite not being a regular starter. The Bears have to be confident Jones can excel as a regular starter at three technique before opening the checkbook for him. Some analysts prefer him as a defensive end in a 3-4 front. Regardless, Jones would be a massive talent upgrade for the Bears’ defensive front.
Jones should be a cheaper option than Hargrave, too. Spotrac projects his contract will pay $17.1 million annually, which adds up over a multi-year deal.
Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson could get a long look from GM Ryan Poles. While more of a natural nose tackle, Tomlinson proved in 2022 that he’s a capable three-tech who can provide a boost in run defense. He may not offer the kind of pass-rushing upside the Bears want to spend big money on, but if Hargrave stays in Philadelphia and the market dries up faster than expected, adding Tomlinson as a ‘second choice’ would still be a boon for Chicago’s defense in 2023.
Remember Larry Ogunjobi? He was Ryan Poles’ first major free-agent signing in 2022, but a failed physical voided the contract. Ogunjobi ended up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had a solid season and will test the free-agent market again in a few weeks. Perhaps the Bears will be more comfortable signing him this time after seeing a full season of healthy football on tape. Ogunjobi started 16 games for the Steelers last year.
Former first-round pick Sheldon Rankins is a name to file away, too. After an underwhelming career with the New Orleans Saints, Rankins did a nice job with the New York Jets over the last two seasons and set a career-high in tackles in 2022. If Ryan Poles wants a bargain signing along the defensive line, Rankins could be his target. He has position versatility and is expected to sign a contract just north of $7 million per season.
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