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Bears' free agency primer: Targets, needs, predictions for critical rebuild moment

Bears' free agency primer: Targets, needs, predictions for critical rebuild moment originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

A critical moment in the Bears' transformational offseason arrives Monday when the NFL's legal tampering window opens at 11 a.m. CT.

After signing veteran safety Kevin Byard on Sunday, general manager Ryan Poles has around $56 million in salary cap space to play with when the free agency bell rings. When you factor in the cost of signing the draft class, the Bears should have around $45 million to spend if they choose to.

Fourty-five million dollars is a lot to play with as Poles looks to fill critical holes in the roster ahead of the potentially transformational decision to draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams with the No. 1 overall pick.

Here's a breakdown of the Bears' needs, potential targets, and a prediction for how they'll attack each hole.

Wide receiver

Potential targets:
Calvin Ridley
Gabe Davis
Tyler Boyd
Curtis Samuel

The Bears have an elite No. 1 wide receiver in DJ Moore, but they depth behind the 26-year-old is lacking.

With Darnell Mooney expected to exit in free agency, the Bears must add at least two receivers this offseason. I expect one to come via the 2024 NFL Draft and the other to come in the form of a lower-cost veteran in free agency.

Ridley would be a great compliment to Moore, but he is expected to have a robust market that sees him haul in a contract with an annual average value in the $18-$20 million range. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported that the New England Patriots are expected to try to land the Alabama product.

The Bears should feel good about the second and third tier of receivers in the free-agent market.

Boyd is a reliable veteran with good hands. He is a willing blocker out of the slot and a good route runner. A down 2023 might suppress his market, but he'd be a nice fit if the Bears plan to add their No. 2 early in the draft.

Davis is a vertical threat who can take the top of defenses, but he was a complete non-factor in many games in Buffalo.

Samuel has the speed and quickness to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. He's a Swiss Army Knife receiver who has notched 126 receptions and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage over the past two seasons.

Davis would be the high-upside option, but I think the reliability and price tag for Boyd would make a lot of sense for the Bears.

Prediction: Tyler Boyd (PFF contract projection: two years, $16.5 million total)

Running back

Potential targets:
Saquon Barkley
Josh Jacobs
Derrick Henry
Austin Ekeler
Tony Pollard
D'Andre Swift
Devin Singletary

Here's the biggest unknown as it pertains to the Bears' free-agent plans.

Word at the NFL Scouting Combine was that the Bears are expected to be in the market for a running back, with Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs viewed as potential fits.

They still have high expectations for second-year back Roschon Johnson, but the Bears need a proven back who is reliable in pass protection and a weapon in the passing game.

Numerous reports over the past week have linked the Bears to Barkley. The 27-year-old would undoubtedly be electric in new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's scheme, but the price tag is expected to be above $10 million per season. Poles comes from a Kansas City Chiefs organization that didn't see value in overpaying running backs, and I don't think he'll stray from that belief and give Barkley a big deal.

There is also reportedly mutual interest between the Bears and Jacobs, according to former Bears fullback and current sideline reporter Jason McKie. Jacobs is 26 and is just one year removed from winning the rushing title. There's a good chance he ends up back in Las Vegas. Jacobs is expected to sign a deal that pays him above the $10 million mark, which might be too rich for the Bears.

Poles could buck the trend and sign one of the top backs, but I think he'll look to add someone from the second tier. Pollard's production dipped in 2023 when he became Dallas' lead back, but he's still only 26 years old and has an explosive gear in both the run and pass game. He's also a solid pass protector.

Prediction: Tony Pollard (PFF contract projection: three years, $20 million total)

Defensive tackle

Potential targets:
Christian Wilkins
Javon Kinlaw
Justin Jones

Multiple league sources told NBC Sports Chicago that the Bears are expected to be “active and aggressive” in the defensive line market.

Whether that means a focus at defensive tackle, edge rusher, or both remains to be seen.

The Bears' defensive tackle need comes down to Wilkins' price. The interior defensive line market has exploded this offseason with Chris Jones signing a five-year, $95 million deal to stay with the Chiefs after Justin Madubuike inked a four-year, $98 million contract to remain in Baltimore.

Wilkins is 28 years old and coming off a season in which he posted career highs in sacks, hits, pressures, and pass-rush win rate while playing 17 games. He's likely going to cost at least $25 million per season. The Bears have been pounding the table for two years about how getting a disruptive three-technique is "the engine" for head coach Matt Eberflus' defense.

Wilkins will get top dollar, and his market could soar past the Bears' price point. If that happens, the Bears can bring back Justin Jones and trust that 2023 second-round pick Gervon Dexter will make a big leap this fall.

I like the idea of pairing Wilkins with Montez Sweat on the defensive line. The Bears' pass rush came alive once Sweat arrived, and Wilkins would give it even more juice. But I think the price is too high, leaving the Bears to bring back Jones and put their faith in Dexter and Zacch Pickens.

Prediction: Justin Jones (two years, $6 million)

Defensive end

Potential targets:
Danielle Hunter
Bryce Huff
Chase Young
Jonathan Greenard
Za'Darius Smith
Josh Uche
AJ Epenesa

There has been a lot of smoke around the Bears' interest in Hunter. That's real, and the Bears watched him torment their offensive line last season when he notched 3.5 sacks against them. But Hunter is 29 and expected to command a deal above $20 million per season.

Greenard and Huff both make sense. They are young, long, and productive edge rushers who fit the Bears' timeline. However, both are expected to be heavily coveted in free agency, with some reports suggesting that Huff will get a contract that is close to $20 million per season.

With those three likely too pricey, Epenesa and Young make the most sense.

Both are scheme fits who shouldn't break the bank. Epenesa also played under new defensive coordinator Eric Washington in Buffalo. Epensa is coming off a season where he notched 29 pressures and seven sacks for the Bills. He has developed into a reliable rotational edge rusher who should fit in well opposite Sweat.

As for Young, he didn't flourish opposite Nick Bosa in San Francisco, and he's not expected to return to the 49ers unless it's on a cheap deal. Young will seek a long-term deal, but he might wind up with a one-year, prove-it deal that allows him to bet on himself and test the market again next offseason.

Epenesa feels like a good bet to land in Chicago. He's a local guy with scheme fit and scheme experience who won't be pricey. Young will cash in elsewhere.

Prediction: A.J. Epenesa (PFF contract projection: three years, $20.25 million total)

Tight end

Potential targets:
Noah Fant
Colby Parkinson
Will Dissly
Irv Smith Jr.
Mike Gesicki

Fant seems like the obvious target, given his age, pass-catching ability, and experience in new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's system.

But Dalton Schultz and Hunter Henry re-signing before free agency means Fant will be TE1 on the market.

If the Bears can get him at an affordable number, that should be the play. If not, they can opt for the cheaper former Seahawks tight ends in Dissly or Parkinson. Dissly is known for his blocking, while Parkinson has become more of a receiving threat over the past two seasons.

The Bears could also look outside the Seattle connection with Gesicki or Smith, who are known pass-catching commodities. I like Fant, but the Bears have already invested heavily in tight end Cole Kmet, and I think Fant's price tag will eclipse the Bears' value projection.

I think Parkinson is a nice, cheaper fit here.

Prediction: Colby Parkinson (PFF projection contract: three years, $19.5 million total)

Safety

Signed: Kevin Byard

The Bears signed veteran safety Kevin Byard to a two-year, $15 million contract Sunday.

When the season begins, Byard will be 31. He's a two-time All-Pro with 28 career interceptions and should pair nicely with Jaquan Brisker.

Center

Potential targets
Lloyd Cushenberry
Connor Williams
Andre James
Coleman Shelton
Evan Brown

The trade for Ryan Bates makes this less of a priority, but the Bears still need to add to the interior of their offensive line.

The best-case scenario is for Bates to be the swing interior lineman and for the Bears to find a starting center either in the draft or free agency. However, the Bears don't currently have a draft pick between No. 9 and No. 75, which puts them out of the running for some of the draft's top centers.

But Poles should still be able to find the long-term answer with one of the Bears' fourth-round picks or a selection he adds later via trade.

Maybe the Bears go for Shelton or Brown, both of whom have familiarity with Waldron, but I think they pass on the center market after acquiring Bates.

Prediction: N/A

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