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ESPN insider names 3 intriguing free agents to sign with the Bears this offseason

ESPN says an edge rusher, center and a familiar cornerback are best fits with the Bears

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A lot of this NFL offseason's attention has been surrounded by what the Bears will do in the 2024 NFL draft. Will they draft a quarterback with the No. 1 pick? Will they trade down? What about the No. 9 pick?

Well, let's drift off that topic onto another --- what will the Bears do in free agency?

Recently, the front office cut ties with longtime veterans Cody Whitehair and Eddie Jackson, freeing up $21.7 million in cap space and catapulting the team's cap number into the top three in the NFL. Who should they chase with all of that money?

Here are three options ESPN staff writer Matt Bowen claims are the "best fits" for the Bears.

Cornerback Jaylon Johnson

Let's start with a familiar face.

Johnson, 24, just finished the final season of his rookie deal, making him eligible for free agency. He will likely command top cornerback money that either places him in the mix of the highest-paid corners or tries and reset the market with a record-breaking number.

Some suspect the Bears will use their franchise tag on Johnson, paying him the average salary of the top five cornerbacks in the league and keeping him on a one-year deal with the team. Bowen thinks the Bears will ink their homegrown corner long-term.

"I like Johnson staying in Chicago as the Bears' No. 1 corner, with the coverage traits, backfield vision and ball skills to produce once again," Bowen wrote. "He posted a career-high four interceptions last season for a Bears defense that finished with 22 picks, tied for most in the NFL. I see Johnson signing a multi-year contract as a pivotal player in coach Matt Eberflus' scheme."

It's true, Johnson inarguably finished his best season this past year. He was elected to his first Pro Bowl and earned second All-Pro honors. He finished the season with his best allowed completion percentage too, allowing just over 55% of his targets to catch the ball.

Edge rusher Jonathan Greenard

There's no question the Bears struck gold by acquiring Montez Sweat at the NFL trade deadline. He became the first player in NFL history to lead two different teams in sacks, posting 6.0 with the Commanders and 6.5 with the Bears.

But to solidify their pass rush, the Bears could use another blue-chip edge rusher opposite of Sweat. Bowen suggests the Bears aim for Texans pass rusher Jonathan Greenard.

"General manager Ryan Poles made the trade last season to acquire defensive end Montez Sweat, which changed the Bears' defensive setup," Bowen wrote. "Now Poles could add another edge defender in Greenard, who is explosive off the ball and makes plays late in the down with his fantastic effort level. Last season with the Texans, Greenard had 12.5 sacks and a 22% pass rush win rate (sixth in the league). And his instincts show up as a run defender, too."

Greenard, 26, finally had his breakout season last year. As Bowen pointed out, he finished with an outstanding 12.5 sacks and an incredible pass-rush win rate to follow up the intrigue of his services.

But there are cons. He has yet to play a full NFL season. He played 15 games in 2023, which was a single-season career high for him. He missed the last two games with an ankle injury. In 2022 he missed half of the regular season games with a calf injury. And in 2021, he missed four games with a foot injury.

Spotrac projects the annual value of his next contract to be close to $13.4 million. That would place him 15th amongst all edge rusher annual contract values, not including ones unsigned, however. To give a better perspective, he'd be in the same range as DeMarcus Lawrence, Josh Sweat and Cameron Jordan.

Other blue-chip edge rusher free agents include Leonard Williams, Danielle Hunter and Carl Lawson. The Bears could also look to the draft to satiate their needs for an edge rusher, too.

Center Connor Williams

There's no question the Bears need interior offensive line help. They just cut ties with Whitehair and the odds of them signing back Lucas Patrick to be anything but a backup are low. Luckily, they have Teven Jenkins and Nate Davis at each of the guard spots, but no solidified center.

Bowen eyes up a veteran center for the Miami Dolphins as a strong fit for the Bears.

"Williams suffered an ACL injury in his left knee in December, which has an impact on his value on the free agent market," Bowen wrote. "However, Williams was really good on tape before the injury, posting a 93.9% pass block win rate. He's a positional blocker at the point of attack and an easy mover in the run game, creating positive angles to cut off defenders. I see Williams staying with Miami in Mike McDaniel's offense. But also keep an eye on Chicago; the Bears need to address the center position."

As Bowen mentioned, Williams' ACL injury from last season might scare off potential suitors. But I would point to his playing history before 2023. He played in every regular season game between 2020-22, except for coming off the bench for a few games. During those three years of gameplay, he also averaged 1,050 snaps per season.

Spotrac places the projected annual value of his next contract at around $13.5 million, which is a lot for a center. That would place him in the top three of center contracts, right next to Jason Kelce and Frank Ragnow.

Considering the Bears have both of their tackles (Braxton Jones and Darnell Wright) on rookie deals, they could probably swing a contract for Williams. And I'll say this, Williams makes up the strong part of the free agent center market, as Whitehair is right behind him in market value. It's a barren free-agent market for snappers at this juncture.

This might be a position best satiated in the NFL draft versus free agency. But stay tuned to see how the Bears budget their free agent money this offseason.

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