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Chicago Bears Q&A: Who will be the top target in free agency? Is Saquon Barkley a realistic possibility?

The NFL scouting combine wrapped up a few days ago in Indianapolis, and the new league year — and free agency — officially begins next week. A lot of questions surround the Chicago Bears in between.

Brad Biggs answers your Bears questions weekly.

Who do you believe is the top free agent that the Bears go after? — @khall254

To me, the most intriguing free-agent match is Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. The only reason he is expected to hit the open market is the Dolphins are facing a salary-cap crunch. Wilkins turned 28 in December and is in the prime of his career as a disruptive interior lineman. Putting him on a line with Montez Sweat would raise the profile of the Bears front seven.

Will the Bears be a player for Wilkins? I wish I had a good answer for that but I don’t. It would make sense given their cap situation and the fact Wilkins isn’t seeking a third contract. There will be no shortage of teams interested in him, and it would take a huge payday to get him signed. A deal for Wilkins should easily exceed $20 million per season.

I do like the idea of sinking big money into a disruptive three-technique more than, say, another edge rusher. The Bears need speed at defensive end opposite Sweat and there might not be a great fit in free agency that makes sense financially.

Wilkins is a good two-way player. He’s solid against the run and produced nine sacks and 23 quarterback hits last season, both career highs. He has missed only two games since the Dolphins picked him in the first round out of Clemson in 2019. There’s a lot to like. Wilkins is represented by agent David Mulugheta, who also has Bears quarterback Justin Fields as a client.

I don’t sense Bears general manager Ryan Poles is dying to burn through cap space and his cash budget. He likely will be calculated. Wilkins plays at a level that it might make sense to splurge. Lining him up alongside Andrew Billings and Gervon Dexter would give coach Matt Eberflus a world of possibilities and be troublesome for opposing offensive coordinators.

After Wilkins, I wonder about defensive ends Jonathan Greenard (Houston Texans) and Bryce Huff (New York Jets) and safety Xavier McKinney (New York Giants). But I don’t think the Bears will be angling for a long list of big fish. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s always possible they’re lying in the weeds on a player or two. I’m also not sure the Bears want to pay big money for a safety, considering investments they will have to make in the secondary in the near future. They don’t have as many holes on the roster as they did a year ago.

One more point I will make about the possibility of a major move in free agency: The Bears agreed to a trade for Buffalo Bills interior offensive lineman Ryan Bates on Monday night, swapping a fifth-round pick for him. That deal cannot become official until March 13, the first day of the new league year, but this effectively removes the Bears from the market for a free-agent center such as the Denver BroncosLloyd Cushenberry. The plan is for Bates to play center. He’s a low-cost addition — Bates will earn $4 million this season — that fills a need without spending big, leaving resources to potentially earmark for a position such as defensive tackle.

Do you think signing Saquon Barkley is a possibility? — @giuseppe199720

There were a lot of questions about Barkley this week. Any regular reader of the mailbag knows I am generally opposed to sinking big money into a running back. If you have a good offense, it’s not that difficult to plug in a back and watch him go. Before we dig into Barkley and other options in free agency, I’d point out that Ryan Poles came from Kansas City, where the Chiefs have done a pretty good job of cycling through cheap running backs and getting solid production. When they won Super Bowl LIV, Damien Williams (signed by the Bears the next offseason) was the starting running back.

The attraction to Barkley is he’s a multidimensional threat with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He also has had some injuries and topped 1,000 rushing yards only once in the last four seasons, a period marred by a serious knee injury that happened in a game at Soldier Field. Barkley averaged 3.9 yards per carry last season in a bad Giants offense and caught 41 passes for 280 yards.

My question is how much is left in the tank for Barkley, who is 27 and has 1,201 carries in the NFL after carrying the ball 671 times in three seasons at Penn State. That’s a lot of wear and tear for a guy who could be seeking upward of $10 million per season.

It’s not a good draft for running backs, but some familiar names are available in free agency. Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders), Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans), Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers), Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys) and D’Andre Swift (Philadelphia Eagles) are all entering a crowded marketplace.

Pollard is interesting to me, but I don’t know what the money will look like for him. I am confident in saying not every guy on the above list will get the kind of contract he’s shooting for. Don’t forget how the Bears felt about Roschon Johnson when they drafted him last season. Poles called him his favorite pick in the draft class. Khalil Herbert has been too inconsistent when called on to support in pass blocking, but he still can be productive.

Maybe the Bears see a fit here for a name guy they can sign at a reasonable price. But I’m always leery of putting big money into veteran running backs. Only a few are truly worth big dollars and they always come with a durability risk.

Assuming Jaylon Johnson gets tagged and there’s no long-term deal, some fans would be OK with trading him for picks. Do you think that’s a scenario that could play out? — @mouratowrexham

The Bears indeed used the franchise tag Tuesday to secure Johnson. It means they will pay him $19.8 million in 2024 unless the parties can hammer out a multiyear extension. By using the tag, the Bears prevented Johnson from becoming an unrestricted free agent, and they now have 4 1/2 months to negotiate a contract.

Ryan Poles was confident last week at the scouting combine that the Bears have presented a strong offer to Johnson’s camp. Obviously it wasn’t enough to get something done before Tuesday, but I’m still relatively confident the sides can reach a deal. Would Johnson want to play on the tag this season and incur the risk that comes with that?

I can’t rule out the possibility the Bears would consider a trade if things aren’t moving at all in the coming months, but that seems like a low-probability move. First, a team would have to have a serious need at cornerback plus the cap space required to give Johnson the kind of contract he’s seeking. The Bears wouldn’t get better by flipping Johnson for draft picks. Cornerback is a strength of the roster right now. Deal away Johnson for future assets and there’s a possibility it becomes a weakness.

Is trading into the top 5 or 6 possible? — @zaynedurr23

This was another popular question this week. As clear as the picture is becoming with what the Bears will do with the No. 1 pick (draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams), there is a world of possibilities that could happen at No. 9.

It looks like most are intrigued about the possibility of trading up to No. 5 (Los Angeles Chargers) or No. 6 (New York Giants) to ensure the Bears can get one of the top three wide receivers on the board.

I like the idea and Ryan Poles has shown no hesitation in being aggressive when he sees a move he wants to make. The stumbling block is what the Bears would have to package to move up from No. 9. They don’t own a second-round pick, and the price for moving from No. 9 to the Giants’ or Chargers’ spot would surely be more than a third-round pick (No. 75). So you’re probably looking at a situation in which the Bears would use 2025 draft picks to make the move, and when you deal away future picks, there’s a premium. A 2025 second-round pick doesn’t have the same value as a 2024 second-rounder.

So the Bears would have to be absolutely in love with the prospect they were eyeing and willing to pay a high price to make that move. They’d also have to be convinced there’s a significant drop to what they would be able to get by staying put at No. 9.

I’d also keep in mind that if No. 5 or No. 6 is for sale, there could be some big-time bidding if other interested teams are seeking to move up for a quarterback. The asking price for a move could easily exceed what the draft value charts show as equal compensation.

It’s an interesting idea to kick around, and I have no doubt Poles and his staff will be exploring every imaginable option. But there are some obstacles when you dig into this scenario.

What’s the plan at center? Is Ryan Bates really the answer? Are they still going to target a Tier 2 free-agent center like Aaron Brewer or Coleman Shelton? — @jtr_1994

As we sit here a week out from the opening of free agency, it sure looks like the plan is for the Bears to play Bates at center. It doesn’t make sense to me to sign a guy like Brewer or Shelton because they probably wouldn’t be far off from where the Bears see Bates. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of the Bears looking for a center in the draft whom they can develop, but they are a little short on picks right now with only five. Yes, that number could easily grow with a trade here or there, but the sweet spot for landing a center with starting traits is Round 2.

The Bears have liked Bates for some time. They made an aggressive bid for him as a restricted free agent in 2022, when they signed him to a four-year, $17 million offer sheet (which the Bills matched). He’s a $4 million-a-year player for the next two seasons, and the Bears have to hope he’s a significant upgrade over what they got from Lucas Patrick, who earned $8 million over the previous two years.

Given Justin Fields’ low trade value and how teams are said to prefer expensive mediocre QBs like Baker Mayfield and Kirk Cousins to him, why not just keep Fields as a backup? Everyone knows Caleb Williams is a much better QB but the risk of any starter missing a few games in a year is high, and having a backup like Fields for a year would be huge and give the team a chance in any game. Tyson Bagent has very poor arm strength and was lousy and overmatched last year despite winning two games. Fields would be a major upgrade. Similarly, after the year, Fields would be happy as he could be an unrestricted free agent, a rare opportunity for a QB. Obviously, the risk is locker room, but literally everyone knows Caleb and not Fields is the QB of the future, and given Fields’ professionalism, seems like this could be worked out. — Sanjay A.

I don’t know if I would classify Mayfield or Cousins as mediocre. If Cousins’ 39,471 passing yards and 270 touchdown passes had come in a Bears uniform, there would be plans to build a statue of him at Soldier Field. Mayfield is coming off a season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that featured 4,044 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He did a nice job of settling in after bouncing around the previous couple of seasons. Surely NFL teams can do a lot worse than Cousins and Mayfield, right? They’re comfortably in the top half of the league’s quarterbacks.

You make some decent points about the value of Fields as a backup, but you’re discounting the possibility there is another veteran that perhaps Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron would like to consider adding. You point out that Fields would be happy after this coming season as he would be an unrestricted free agent. Unless a team acquiring Fields by trade executes the fifth-year option in his rookie contract (seems a bit of a long shot to me), he will be a UFA next year anyway. I just don’t think the Bears would want the distraction of having Williams and Fields — and I also think Fields would be pushing for a fresh start elsewhere.

Say the Vikings lose out on Kirk Cousins and he signs with the Falcons, could Minnesota be a suitor for Justin Fields in that scenario? I would hate to see him go to a division rival and take off with players around him like Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson. — Rick, Evergreen Park

It will be interesting to see what Plan B is for the Vikings if they are unable to retain Cousins. It certainly appears that keeping Cousins is their primary goal. Baker Mayfield is a free agent who should do pretty well in free agency, but most folks figure he winds up back with the Buccaneers, especially after they struck a deal to keep wide receiver Mike Evans.

Russell Wilson looms as a veteran option. The Denver Broncos are releasing him, and he probably could be had on the cheap based on the enormous amount of money the Broncos owe him. As miserable as Wilson was in 2022 in Denver, he did pass for 3,070 yards with a 98.0 passer rating, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. I don’t think the 35-year-old Wilson is any team’s Plan A, but he certainly will be part of a few teams’ fallback plans.

I’m not sure Fields is a great fit for what the Vikings are doing offensively under Kevin O’Connell, but not every team will get its first choice in the QB derby and he’s likely to land somewhere. If the Vikings put weight into what they’ve seen in person, Fields has struggled against them. He’s 1-3 in four starts with the Bears scoring 13, 12 and nine points in three of those games.

The Vikings would be more likely to consider a trade up to draft a quarterback, in my opinion, than a trade within the division for Fields. However, GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has shown no hesitation when it comes to trading with NFC North rivals. Stay tuned on this one.

When did Ryan Poles decide to move on from Justin Fields? Was it when he got the No. 1 pick again? Did he always plan on it from the beginning? What was his plan at QB and did it change or did he always want to fix the defense first, then this draft to go offense and get a QB? — @thedude4442

Interesting question. Nothing is finalized, but all signs point to the Bears moving on from Fields and using the No. 1 pick on USC quarterback Caleb Williams. In the event it isn’t Williams, I still expect the Bears to select a quarterback. As I have written in this space, it’s not a Fields decision anymore (in my opinion). It’s a matter of which quarterback they are choosing.

I think some folks probably assumed Poles and the organization were putting way more faith in Fields after the 2022 season than they were. Poles elected to go with Fields as his starter in 2023 and trade the No. 1 pick, but it was far from a long-term vote of confidence. The passing offense was a total mess coming off that 2022 season and we could go on and on and on explaining the reasons. In short, Fields was one of the reasons and his play wasn’t dramatically different this past season. The Bears got off to a miserable start, and the passing offense remained a mess.

The Bears got some good fortune as they recovered from a brutal start while the Carolina Panthers never gained their footing, putting them in a fortuitous situation with the first and ninth picks. This is a different conversation if the Bears held only the ninth pick. Maybe you’re looking at a future that includes Fields in that case. The reality is the Bears are in a unique position, and it has been clear for at least a couple of months now which direction this was headed.

Has anyone asked Ryan Poles to rule out the potential of having Justin Fields and a top rookie to start the season? If the market isn’t there for Fields, do you give him something of a working tryout for other teams while also keeping immediate expectations for Williams in check? — @gratefulydead3

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I don’t know how you give Fields a “tryout” for other teams unless you’re starting him, and if the Bears select Williams at No. 1, guess who will be the starter in Week 1: Williams. The presence of Fields on the roster would have zero impact on expectations for Williams. My hunch is Poles would say he’s keeping all options open at this point. As you know, GMs are prone to broad, generalized statements at this time of year.

Why would the Bears trade a fifth-round pick for a swing interior offensive lineman when they could’ve just drafted one in the fifth without paying $8 million over two years? — @louiecorrea

Because generally speaking, the swing interior lineman you’re going to get in Round 5 will take a season or two to prove he’s reliable enough for that role — and that’s if he pans out. The Bears believe Ryan Bates can be more than a swing player for them. Right now, they’re counting on him to be the starting center.

There is a question I’m curious about: If the Bears had not traded for Bates, would the salary-cap-strapped Bills have wound up releasing him? In other words, could the Bears have kept the fifth-rounder and then signed Bates to a contract?

Knowing Shane Waldron loves a two-tight-end set and has had talented receivers for his offense, who do you see the Bears picking if both Malik Nabers and Brock Bowers are available at No. 9? — Steve K.

Not sure there is a bad answer here, and Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze could potentially sneak through to No. 9 as well. If one of those wide receivers is available, I think the Bears would go wide receiver over Bowers. They don’t have a No. 2 receiver on the roster right now, and unless they pay for one in free agency, that’s going to be a real need. I like the idea of a playmaker opposite DJ Moore. Think about what some of the dynamic passing offenses in the league with two stalwart wide receivers accomplish on a regular basis.