Bears face several key moves before draft

Stephen A.: With Eberflus staying, Bears should keep Fields (2:19)

Stephen A. Smith says the Bears should stay committed to developing Justin Fields with Matt Eberflus as coach. (2:19)

CHICAGO -- The biggest decision of the NFL offseason looms over the Chicago Bears, who own the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. Commit to quarterback Justin Fields for 2024 or start over by drafting USC's Caleb Williams?

Before the Bears decide, there is plenty of work to be done elsewhere on the roster. Chicago is set to enter free agency with an estimated $41 million in salary cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management System. Just like last offseason, the Bears have the financial flexibility to pay their own and sign talent from other teams. What's different from 2023 are the priorities placed on not allowing their best homegrown talent to hit the open market.

The top item for the Bears is paying cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who is in line to become an unrestricted free agent. Both sides have indicated a desire to strike a deal this offseason, but a long-term extension is not the only avenue Chicago has to keep Johnson on the roster.

Here's a look at Chicago's best unrestricted free agents and several others whose futures with the Bears hang in the balance.

Jaylon Johnson, cornerback

Months after contract talks stalled and a subsequent trade request went nowhere, Johnson and the Bears have repeatedly affirmed a desire to maintain their partnership. Johnson was named second-team All-Pro and earned Pro Bowl honors in his fourth season, in which he produced a career-high four interceptions and 10 pass deflections.

Last August, Johnson said he wasn't aiming to reset the cornerback market with a new deal. After the 2023 season, expectations for his payday have shifted.

In an appearance on Keyshawn Johnson's "All Facts No Breaks" podcast in January, Jaylon Johnson expressed the leverage he believes he has earned: "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."

The Green Bay Packers' Jaire Alexander is the NFL's highest-paid cornerback at $21 million per year. The Cleveland Browns gave Denzel Ward the most fully guaranteed money for a CB at $44.5 million.

The Bears have the flexibility to grant Johnson's request while also addressing other needs. The team also has the franchise tag at its disposal, which is estimated at $18.8 million for cornerbacks in 2024.

The window for teams to apply the franchise or transition tag is Feb. 20 to March 5. The way the Bears have raved about Johnson, coupled with the fact they do not have major financial responsibilities elsewhere, makes using the tag on Johnson seem like a last resort if negotiations fall through again.

"I feel really good about that situation," Bears GM Ryan Poles said last month. "Jaylon's not going to go anywhere, and we'll work through it to get something done."

Darnell Mooney, wide receiver

The Bears struggled to find a No. 2 receiver behind DJ Moore. That role was supposed to be filled by Mooney, who came away with a career-low 31 catches for 414 yards and a touchdown.

That's a steep fall from his breakout campaign in 2021 (81 receptions, 1,055 yards, 4 TDs). Poles' expectations are that Mooney will "bounce back and have a really good career," but a change of scenery might be best for the 5-foot-11 receiver, and there's a solid group of pending free agent wide receivers, headlined by Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr. and Mike Evans.

"There's different buckets," Poles said when asked where he stood on Mooney. "There's guys that are going to have to go test the market and see what's out there and maybe circle back."

Yannick Ngakoue, defensive end

The Bears signed Ngakoue in training camp to a one-year deal worth $10.5 million in hopes of bolstering their pass rush, but those improvements didn't come along until Ngakoue had Montez Sweat rushing opposite him at defensive end. The Bears acquired Sweat from the Washington Commanders in a trade-deadline move on Oct. 31 and quickly made him the fifth-highest-paid pass-rusher with a four-year, $98 million contract. Sweat led the Bears with six sacks.

Ngakoue, who finished the season on injured reserve after breaking an ankle on Dec. 10, had four sacks in 13 games.

With an easier path toward finding an upgrade on the interior of the D-line via free agency, the Bears could choose to find Ngakoue's replacement with the ninth overall pick.

Justin Jones, defensive tackle

If the Bears want to upgrade their 3-technique position, they'll have their chance to do so next month when the Kansas City Chiefs' Chris Jones, Baltimore Ravens' Justin Madubuike and Miami Dolphins' Christian Watkins are set to hit free agency.

While the Bears used 2023 to develop rookies Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zaach Pickens, Jones once again held down his starting role at defensive tackle. In two seasons after becoming one of Poles' first free agent signings, Jones totaled 7.5 sacks, 101 tackles (22 TFL) and 24 quarterback hits.

Lucas Patrick, center

Patrick was in line to serve as a backup before a preseason injury to Teven Jenkins forced the Bears to shuffle the center back in as a starter.

The 30-year-old gave Chicago flexibility at multiple spots on the interior of the offensive line over two seasons, but inconsistent play at center when the Bears might be starting a rookie quarterback in 2024 could warrant an upgrade.

Finding a veteran center won't break the bank. After signing former Tennessee Titans right guard Nate Davis last offseason, the Bears could pair him with his old teammate in Aaron Brewer. Considering Chicago just hired Jason Houghtaling from the Titans as their new assistant offensive line coach, the dots are connecting nicely.

Potential cap casualties

Eddie Jackson, safety

The veteran safety has started 100 games over seven seasons in Chicago. His presence was vital in developing a young secondary over the past two seasons, but injuries have shortened each of his past three seasons, and his contract makes Jackson a viable cut for the Bears.

His $18.1 million cap charge is the third highest on the Bears' roster for 2024 and comes with $12.6 million in savings ($5.6 million in dead money) if he is released.

Cody Whitehair, offensive line

Whitehair has been with the Bears since 2016 and started 23 of 29 games since 2022. He was moved to center last offseason, but an injury to Jenkins made Whitehair shift to left guard for the first five games.

Once he moved back to center in Week 6, Whitehair was benched after several errant snaps. The 31-year-old is set to enter the final year of his contract, which comes with a $13.3 million cap hit ($9.1 million in savings).