In Chicago, folks have been laser focused on what the Bears will do with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But we’re a month away from the start of free agency negotiations and the Bears are projected to have nearly $50 million to spend. They’ve still got plenty of holes to fill on the roster, too, so there’s a good chance they’re active when the market opens.
Here’s a stab at some of the players who could be on GM Ryan Poles’ wishlist on the defensive side of the ball if they don’t sign extensions or get tagged by their respective teams.
BRIAN BURNS - PANTHERS DEFENSIVE END
Burns has been linked to the Bears for several years now. His name was mentioned as a potential player to come to Chicago in the deal that sent the No. 1 overall pick to Carolina last year. There were reports that the Bears checked in on a Burns trade at last year’s deadline, too. But obviously the Panthers haven’t let Burns out of their building yet and there’s a chance they use the franchise tag to keep him around if they don’t sign him to an extension.
If they don’t, Burns figures to be at the top of the Bears’ free agent wish list. He was a dynamo for the Panthers throughout the duration of his rookie contract, with 46 sacks, 59 TFL and eight forced fumbles in five years. Further, Burns is just entering his prime so he and Montez Sweat could form an explosive pass rush duo for the foreseeable future.
MIKE EDWARDS - CHIEFS SAFETY
The Bears have a decision to make with Eddie Jackson this offseason. His leadership and communication in the back of the defense alone could be worth his $18 million cap hit. But a nagging foot injury has cost him the better parts of the last two seasons, and Ryan Poles could decide to cut bait to save cash.
If he does, Edwards has emerged as a reliable option for the Chiefs this season. He took over at free safety when Bryan Cook went out with an ankle injury in December and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 48.4% completion rate when targeted. Edwards also has eight interceptions, five fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and four defensive touchdowns over his five-year career, so he has the requisite ballhawk skills to play in the Bears secondary. He was effective in the Super Bowl as well, with seven tackles and one PBU.
RANDY GREGORY - 49ERS DEFENSIVE END
It doesn’t seem likely that the Bears will retain Yannick Ngakoue and Dominique Robinson hasn’t developed into an effective pass rusher in two seasons with the team. Many folks have the Bears picking an edge rusher or two in the upcoming draft, but that wouldn’t preclude them from adding another end in free agency.
The 49ers acquired Gregory partway through the season and he’s been a rotational edge rusher for the team this year. He’s also familiar with Matt Eberflus from their time together in Dallas in 2015 and 2016. A seven-year NFL veteran, Gregory has 22 career sacks, 10 forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Gregory has four tackles and one TFL for the 49ers in this postseason.
DANIELLE HUNTER - VIKINGS DEFENSIVE END
Recent reports have indicated the Bears are high on Hunter this year, if he hits the market. It’s easy to understand why, since they’ve seen how Hunter can wreck plays up close. In 14 games against the Bears, Hunter has 7.5 sacks, 14 TFL and a forced fumble. Hunter is a little older than some of the other players on this list since he’s set to turn 30 this year, but he hasn’t lost a step yet. Hunter has double digit sacks every season dating back to 2018, except for 2020 when he required season-ending surgery to fix a neck injury. He set a career high with 16.5 sacks last year, too.
CHRIS JONES - CHIEFS DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Jones and the Chiefs were at an impasse for much of the 2023 offseason and at one point it seemed like they were headed towards a divorce. But the two sides agreed to a one-year deal and Jones proved once again that he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the game. Pairing him with Montez Sweat would not only boost the pass rush, but it would allow Gervon Dexter more time to develop and thrive as a second-wave lineman.
Jones racked up 10.5 sacks and 13 TFL in 2023, which earned him First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. He’s got a history of success in the Super Bowl, too. He batted three balls down at the line of scrimmage in the team’s 2020 victory over the 49ers, made five tackles in their loss to the Bucs one year later and made three tackles in last year’s win. This year, Jones added four more tackles to his Super Bowl resume and two QB hits. Jones also forced a fumble in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship win over the Bills this year.
JUSTIN MADUBUIKE - RAVENS DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Madubuike is another player who may never hit the market because of his dominant performance over the 2023 season. The Ravens drafted Madubuike in the third round of the 2020 draft and he steadily developed and earned more snaps every year of his career. He exploded for 13 sacks last season, which led all interior defensive linemen. He’s no slouch against the run either, with an extremely low 2.5% missed tackle rate on runs snaps per PFF.
ANTOINE WINFIELD JR. - BUCCANEERS SAFETY
The Bucs have several big free agent decisions to make this offseason. Do they pay Baker Mayfield, Mike Evans and Winfield Jr.? If the big play safety hits the market– and if the Bears decide to cut ties with Eddie Jackson– he feels like a good fit in Matt Eberflus’ defense. Winfield Jr. thrived in Bowle’s zone-heavy and uber aggressive defense, and we saw shades of the same things in Chicago last year. Most importantly, Winfield fits into Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. pillars. He’s a takeaway machine with seven interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in 59 games, and he’s a solid tackler. His 122 stops last season would’ve been second on the Bears behind only T.J. Edwards’ 155 tackles.
CHASE YOUNG - 49ERS DEFENSIVE END
Poles opted to bring in Montez Sweat rather than his former Commanders teammate, Young, at the trade deadline. Their play over the second half of the season showed Poles made the right choice.
Young has looked out of sorts at times throughout the postseason, and injuries have kept him from reaching the full potential people saw when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020. But he put on a good showing at the Super Bowl with one sack, one TFL and two QB hits. His athletic traits are still tempting and it’s not unthinkable that the Bears would consider bringing him in on a small, short-term deal if no big market emerges for his services.