How tag deadline crystalized Bears' plan of attack in free agency


General manager Ryan Poles and the Bears have spent the last eight weeks watching tape, filling out reports, and concocting a plan for a pivotal offseason that starts when the legal tampering period begins March 13.

Poles, head coach Matt Eberflus, and the Bears' staff surely have a roadmap of how they hope the opening bell of free agency plays out. The Bears are expected to prioritize the offensive line in free agency, but with almost $100 million in salary cap space, Poles has the money to go a myriad of directions.

That path got some clarity Tuesday when the league's franchise tag deadline came and went.

The Kansas City Chiefs did not tag star left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., setting him up to be one of the most-coveted players on the market should the two sides not reach a long-term deal by March 13.

While an unexpected door opened for the Bears with the Chiefs' decision not to tag Brown, another closed Tuesday -- one shrouded in temptation -- when the New York Giants placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on star running back Saquon Barkley.

A different team can still iron out a long-term deal with Barkley, but that team would have to send the Giants two first-round picks should New York not choose not to match the offer.

The Bears were not expected to be bidders in the Barkley sweepstakes had the star hit the open market. However, it was easy to see a reality where Poles and the Bears strike out on some of their top targets and pivot to Barkley with visions of an electric backfield pairing with quarterback Justin Fields dancing in their head.

That temptation is now firmly off the board.

Barkey returning to New York, coupled with the Las Vegas Raiders tagging Josh Jacobs and the Dallas Cowboys tagging Tony Pollard, puts David Montgomery further up on the free-agent running back pecking order than anticipated.

Montgomery and the Bears have a mutual interest in getting a new deal done. But that deal has to make sense financially for the Bears. Montgomery is beloved in the locker room, is a tough runner, and is a good pass protector, but there's a good chance he falls outside Poles' desired price range for a running back now.

With Khalil Herbert on the roster and a deep rookie running back class in the draft, Poles should feel comfortable letting Montgomery walk if the running back's ask is too high.

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The Bears have several critical needs to fill in free agency.

The tagging deadline gave them a left tackle to chase -- one Poles is familiar with -- should they choose. It also removed the unnecessary temptation of an electric running back with a concerning injury history.

The Bears should look to leave free agency with at least two of the top-level offensive linemen, an off-ball linebacker (Bobby Okereke, anyone?), a veteran edge rusher, and preferably a three-technique. That might just be the start.

With Brown Jr. on the market and the specter of Saquon no longer hoving over them, the Bears have a clear path to attack in free agency.

No detours required.

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