NFL franchise tag window will give Bears clarity on two fronts heading into free agency

NFL franchise tag window will give Bears clarity on two fronts heading into free agency originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The NFL offseason officially started Tuesday when the tag window opened up. From Tuesday, February 20, until March 5, teams can place the franchise tag or transition tag on players whose contracts are set to expire.

Teams usually wait until later in the window to exercise the tag and will have until mid-July to agree on a long-term extension with the tagged player. The player must play on the one-year deal if an extension isn't reached. Teams and players can continue to work out different incentives past the mid-July deadline, but it has to be done within the one-year parameters of the tag.

The Bears will be front and center during the window, with star cornerback Jaylon Johnson expected to receive the tag as his camp and general manager Ryan Poles work to find common ground on a long-term contract.

The tag window will provide some clarity on Johnson's future and put $18.8 million on the books for 2024 unless a different deal is reached by mid-July.

But the Bears will also get a complete understanding of the free agent market during the tag window.

The Bears still need to fill numerous holes in their roster, including wide receiver, center, safety, and defensive end.

Potential high-price free-agent targets like wide receiver Tee Higgins, safety Antoine Winfield, edge rushers Brian Burns and Josh Allen, and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike will likely receive the tag during the window.

On the flip side, wide receiver Mike Evans, defensive tackle Chris Jones, defensive end Bryce Huff, safety Kyle Dugger, and edge rusher Danielle Hunter either are not expected to be tagged or, in Hunter's case, have a no-tag clause in their contract.

After releasing Eddie Jackson and Cody Whitehair, the Bears have around $67 million in cap space. But once you factor in the draft class slots, the 51-man total, and the necessary in-season spending, the Bears are realistically around $50 million. Johnson's tag would put the Bears at around or slightly under $30 million to spend, with several holes to fill.

The tag window will allow Poles to see what big fish will be available when the new league year begins. But at this point, paying Evans a contract with an annual value of $24 million or giving Hunter $20-plus million is unlikely, given the team's multiple needs and available cap room. There are always cap moves to open up more space if the right player is available. The Bears could also value a player like Evans or Hunter so highly that they feel comfortable sinking most of their cap space into one player and finding affordable veteran fillers at other depth positions.

If we operate with the Bears' effective cap space sitting at $50 million (rough estimate with draft class and in-season money), the Bears could, in theory, tag Johnson for $18.8, give Evans or Hunter a big-ticket deal in the $20-plus million range, and add a veteran center for around $6-7 million, and be about done. That leaves clear needs at safety, other interior offensive line positions, second tight end, and either wide receiver or defensive end unchecked.

The tag window and the conversations at next week's NFL Scouting Combine will help Poles and the Bears crystalize their plans going forward.

That will almost certainly start with tagging Johnson and then seeing what the entire free-agent class will look like after the dust has settled from the other 31 teams.

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