Let’s Talk About Ryan Poles and Cap Management

Bears GM Ryan Poles continues to prove he is a master of cap management. The executive, who is entering his third year as Chicago’s general manager, released veterans Eddie Jackson and Cody Whitehair on Thursday, In doing so, Poles added an estimated $21.5 million to build his 2024 roster. The Bears now have approximately $70 million available to use as Poles sees fit, third best in the NFL.

Additionally, Poles controls the draft for the second consecutive year. The Bears own the top pick in the draft thanks to last year’s trade with the Panthers and were assigned the No. 9 pick based on their 7-10 record in 2023. The front office is well-positioned to be aggressive in free agency, which begins in about a month. Poles is expected to be active in the trade market, too. He could move the No. 1 pick for the record return he is seeking. The executive could also trade QB Justin Fields instead.

Trading Fields would create $3.23 million in cap space with $2.77 million in dead money. That’s an easy contract to move but there is a caveat. If Fields gets his fifth-year option, that’s projected to be nearly $22 million fully guaranteed for the 2025 season. The deadline for that decision is May 2, and the acquiring team would then be saddled with the same decision Poles must make if he keeps Fields. Nobody will trade for Fields as a rental, so any acquiring team will have to be convinced Fields will continue to improve enough to warrant that fifth year or a contract extension.

That includes the Bears, who will base the bulk of their offseason activity on their quarterback decision. Poles is probably open to extending Fields, but it’s going to have to be at the valuation he assigns to his starting QB. The GM is not afraid to make the tougher decisions to safeguard his finances, and Roquan Smith is a great example. If he cannot find common ground with Fields, he has options in a quarterback-rich draft. That includes top-three signal callers Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels, who could go 1-2-3 in late April. J.J. McCarthy, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. are also considered potential NFL starters.

Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield are options in free agency but will cost much more than retaining Fields. Signing either would deplete too much of the team’s cap space. Conversely, Poles could extend Fields to a cap-friendly deal. The contract that Jalen Hurts signed with the Eagles is a good example and provides the foundation for any deal Fields might sign with the Bears or another team.

Fields won’t be traded until the Bears wind down in free agency, if at all, but Poles has a more pressing need. The franchise tag window opens on Tuesday, and teams have until March 5 to use the tag, a one-year tender to keep a player under their control. Usually, these are used to buy time to come to terms on a multiyear contract before a mid-July deadline. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who “isn’t going anywhere” according to Poles, is likely to be tagged.

Tendering Johnson would drop the Bears to 7th or 8th in available cap space, leaving enough money to still do some damage in free agency. Chicago has to replace Jackson and Whitehair and could use free agency to do so. Poles has options, however. Cornerback is the team’s strongest and deepest position. Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith performed well as rookies, and Kyler Gordon will be going into his critical third year.

Still, pass defenders of Johnson’s ilk are difficult to find. Opposing teams refused to throw in Johnson’s direction in 2023. When they did, he intercepted or successfully defended his receiver. Those types of corners usually get locked up by their teams. Jaire Alexander of the Packers signed a four-year contract last May worth $21 million per season. Johnson’s camp will probably use that as its floor in any future negotiations, and rightfully so. Johnson is a top-three player at his position.

Justin Jones is also a free agent, and he’s due for a big raise after inking a two-year deal worth $12 million before the 2022 season. Poles will probably let Jones walk in favor of Gervon Dexter. Yannick Ngakoue is also a free agent who needs to be replaced in the draft or free agency. The Bears wouldn’t have signed Ngakoue to a one-year deal if they were comfortable with DeMarcus Walker or Dominique Robinson as starters.

Most of Chicago’s other free agents are expected to move on, including wide receiver Darnell Mooney. That group also includes Lucas Patrick, D’Onta Foreman, Equanimeous St. Brown, and backup tight ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis. Poles may choose to retain Foreman and possibly Lewis, but the others have played their last games with the Bears.

Poles also has to start thinking about his 2022 draft picks. The cap flexibility he has this year matters for those deals, and will partially dictate how he spends next month. He can still target top players, however, and is expected to do so.

Here is a list of the best available free agents based on team need to keep an eye on once the new NFL season officially commences:


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