Teams with an abundance of salary-cap room first look to invest in their own players. It’s always more sound to build from within than to chase veterans in free agency, where teams wind up overpaying for players who, in many cases, are available for a reason.
The Chicago Bears head into a seismic offseason with a healthy cap situation. They have the eighth-most “effective cap space,” according to overthecap.com, at $36.6 million. Effective cap space takes into account where a team will be after it has met what’s called the “Rule of 51,” for offseason bookkeeping purposes, and signed its projected rookie class. For the Bears, that includes the first and ninth picks in the draft.
The Bears’ figure is expected to rise. Releasing free safety Eddie Jackson and offensive lineman Cody Whitehair would create an additional $21 million in cap room. So general manager Ryan Poles has more than enough flexibility to accomplish his goals for the next phase of roster construction.
That process figures to begin with negotiations to retain cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who was voted to the Pro Bowl Games and was a second-team All-Pro after a banner season that included a career-high four interceptions.
“Jaylon’s not going to go anywhere,” Poles said last week, a sure sign the Bears are prepared to use the franchise tag if they’re unable to hammer out a multiyear contract before the window closes. Teams can apply the tag from Feb. 20 through March 5.
The franchise tag for cornerbacks is expected to be about $18.8 million in 2024, and that would set a floor for contract negotiations and buy another five months to work out more than a one-year deal. The Bears have used the franchise tag twice in the last decade — on wide receivers Allen Robinson in 2021 and Alshon Jeffery in 2016 — and placed the transition tag on cornerback Kyle Fuller in 2018.
Johnson is aiming to become the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback, a distinction currently held by Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers or Denzel Ward of the Cleveland Browns, depending on how you measure it.
“The ball’s in my court, the ball’s in my favor,” Johnson said Wednesday when he appeared on the Fox Sports podcast “All Facts No Brakes” with Keyshawn Johnson. “I think it’s just a matter of time and when it happens. Going into the negotiations I don’t think there’s too much to try to talk about.
“I feel like there’s no reason why I can’t be the highest-paid corner in the league. That’s what I’m aiming for. That’s what I’m shooting for. That’s what I think can be done and should be done.”
Alexander received a four-year, $84 million extension in 2022, with the average annual salary of $21 million setting the bar atop the market. That same year, Ward got a five-year, $100.5 million extension ($20.5 million average) with a record $44.5 million fully guaranteed. Jalen Ramsey of the Miami Dolphins is the only other cornerback in the $20 million club in terms of annual average, having signed a five-year, $100 million deal in 2020.
Two years after the Alexander and Ward contracts, with Johnson having bet on himself, it stands to reason he is shooting to reset the market considering his performance and accolades and the rising salary cap. Whether he gets there remains to be seen.
Poles was reluctant to consider a market-setting deal for inside linebacker Roquan Smith in 2022. While he hasn’t spoken specifically about numbers for Johnson, cornerback is considered a more premium position and the Bears could maintain a strength by retaining Johnson with developing second-year cornerbacks Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith and third-year nickel back Kyler Gordon.
The cornerback market took a slight dip since Alexander and Ward were paid, but that probably had more to do with the available talent than a shift in thinking about positional value and budget allocation.
Some defensive coaches place a greater premium on cover men than pass rushers with the philosophy that it’s easier for offenses to scheme around a defensive end than an elite cornerback, especially one who isn’t a liability against the run.
That’s not to say you can play great defense without top-tier edge rushers — you can’t. It all goes hand in hand, but if forced to pick an elite cornerback or an elite edge rusher, some coaches would go with the guy who can mirror top-tier wide receivers.
That’s why it is paramount the Bears keep their talent. Johnson turns 25 in April, and he’s only eight months older than Gordon despite having two more years of experience.
The Bears love Johnson and his makeup, and he’s wired exactly how you want a cornerback to be with a desire to face the best receiver every Sunday. The only issue they will have when considering whether to make him the highest-paid cornerback in the league is durability. He missed three games this season, including the finale against the Packers when a minor shoulder injury sidelined him. He missed six games in 2022, two in 2021 and three as a rookie.
That doesn’t take away from what Johnson accomplished this season, meeting the challenge of delivering more on-the-ball production. It’s important to recognize Johnson was having an elite season before Poles acquired defensive end Montez Sweat at the trade deadline. So it’s not like his ascent was the result of a suddenly enhanced pass rush.
The front office has a lot to work through with its attention being pulled in many directions. The Bears need to fill out Matt Eberflus’ coaching staff while preparing for free agency and draft meetings.
Confidence should be high that the Bears will resolve matters with Johnson, but it could take some time. The last three players on whom the Bears used the franchise tag — Robinson, Jeffery and defensive tackle Henry Melton (2013) — played out their one-year deals. The Bears secured running back Matt Forte with the franchise tag in 2012, ultimately leading to a four-year contract.
The goal with Johnson has to be a multiyear agreement.
“We’ll work through it and get something done,” Poles said.
It’s a matter of how high the dollars — and more importantly the guarantees — go.