Kevin Byard

Kevin Byard signing sends clear message about Bears' plans ahead of Caleb Williams decision

The Bears' window is starting to open

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Bears general manager Ryan Poles filled a key hole Sunday by signing veteran safety Kevin Byard to a two-year contract just one day before the NFL's legal tampering window opens on Monday at 11 a.m. C.T.

Byard is a 30-year-old, two-time All-Pro safety who will fill the hole vacated by Eddie Jackson's release. Byard gives the Bears a free safety, whose skill set should mesh well with Jaquan Brisker. Byard is better in coverage than Jackson and a much surer tackler. Last season, Byard earned a coverage grade of 70.3, per Pro Football Focus, and only missed 4.7 percent of his tackles. Jackson earned a coverage grade of 60.0 and missed 15.6 percent of his tackles. Byard has also started 121 of 130 career games, which gives him a leg up on Jackson in the availability category.

The signing of Byard checks an important box and sends a message about where Poles believes the Bears are at this point in the rebuild ahead of the expected decision to draft Caleb Williams with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

The Bears gave Byard a two-year, $15 million contract despite the market being flooded with veteran safeties from Justin Simmons to Xavier McKinney and Quandre Diggs.

Poles could have let the safety market come to him and taken option B or C if Byard had signed elsewhere. Instead, Poles moved fast to lock down a proven veteran safety who should be a clear upgrade over Jackson in 2024 and 2025.

If Poles didn't believe the Bears were ready to start contending this fall, there is no reason to give a strong deal to a soon-to-be 31-year-old safety when it's clear the NFL is devaluing safeties.

Two years ago or even last year, Poles probably would have stayed patient and waited for a value signing at a preferred number. There's no reason to jump the gun when realistic contention is far off.

But the Bears clearly feel it's no longer far off.

This is a team that went 7-10 last season while kicking away three games in which they held double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. They did that with the NFL's 27th-ranked passing offense and a defense that struggled to find its footing early due to injuries and coaching tumult.

The Bears have a young, ascending defense with cornerstones in place at each level in defensive end Montez Sweat, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and cornerback Jaylon Johnson. They expect third-year cornerback Kyler Gordon and Brisker to fully blossom in 2024 and have high hopes for cornerback Tyrique Stevenson making a big jump in Year 2.

The Bears believe this defense can be elite if they add the requisite pieces in free agency and the draft (edge rusher is a massive need). Having a top-tier defense can be a young quarterback's best friend early in his NFL career, and the Bears are signaling they believe Williams can do for them what C.J. Stroud did for the Houston Texans last season if they do right by him. Give a defense that doesn't ask him to score 35 points a game and add two reliable receivers under DJ Moore, and the Bears believe all the pieces will be in place for their contention window to start opening this fall.

Teams who are still rebuilding don't overpay for a veteran safety in the backend of his prime or give up a fifth-round pick for a potential swing interior offensive lineman as the Bears did in acquiring Ryan Bates.

Poles' rebuilding plan has entered a new phase. That was always going to be the case whether Justin Fields or Caleb Williams was the quarterback. One option just made the path to contention much more likely.

It was notable when Wiliams took the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine podium and said he wanted to know if the Bears "want to win."

When the legal negotiating window opens on Monday, we'll start to get a clear picture of Poles' vision for this team and what he expects from them in 2024.

If the Byard signing is any indication, the Bears believe that the time, with Williams expected to arrive in April, is now.

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