Bears

Hub Arkush: While NFL cornerbacks command big money, Bears’ young secondary could pay off

Chicago Bears safety Jaquan Brisker smiles as he speaks at a news conference during the team's rookie minicamp, Friday, May 6, 2022, at Halas Hall in Lake Forest.

From the moment he arrived in Chicago, Bears general manager Ryan Poles has preached patience, focus and discipline. While he is loathe to speak the word rebuild, he has been clear that this is going to take some time.

Poles inherited the NFL’s worst passing game. Unlocking sophomore quarterback Justin Fields will be his greatest challenge. The fact that he has jettisoned the team’s best offensive player in Allen Robinson and most of the receivers, while shopping strictly from the clearance rack for their replacements, has generated real concern.

Poles’ most significant free agent purchases to date – linebacker Nicholas Morrow, pass rusher Al-Quadin Muhammad, defensive tackle Justin Jones, defensive back Tavon Young – are all on defense.

For some, the last straw came when Poles used his first two picks on a cornerback and a safety. So why am I still more encouraged than despondent over Poles’ early work? Because right now he is building a foundation, not a contender. And while Fields is clearly the key, Poles has four years to unlock him.

Study current NFL trends and you’ll discover that cornerback and edge rusher, along with wideout, are now the most important and most expensive positions in the league besides QB.

Poles began his tenure with Fields, yes, but he had only one of the three starting cornerbacks and only one of the two starting safeties he needed.

On Monday, the Packers made Jaire Alexander the highest-paid cornerback in the league with a massive contract extension averaging $21 million a year over four years. The deal tops the mega deals given to cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, Denzel Ward, Marlon Humphrey, Marshon Lattimore, Tre’Davious White and J.C. Jackson over the last 18 months.

All those corners except Jackson were first-round draft picks. The Packers traded up, giving up first-, third- and sixth-round picks to select Alexander at 18th overall in 2018.

For the 2022 season, teams are committed to an average expense at cornerback of $20.5 million. Only edge rushers ($32.1 million) and wide receivers ($23.3 million) are making more, according to Spotrac and OverTheCap.com, other than quarterbacks.

The top 10 spending teams at cornerback this year will include the Rams, Bills, Packers, Patriots, Ravens, Dolphins, Chargers and Broncos – all legitimate contenders – while only the Chiefs, Titans and Raiders are likely to contend among the bottom 10.

Only three teams will spend less at corner than the Bears and it will likely stay that way for the next few years with Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon, Kindle Vildor and Thomas Graham Jr. all locked into their rookie deals.

While Gordon, the 39th overall draft pick, is strictly a projection at this point, Johnson has shown high-end traits and Vildor and Graham have at least flashed a few special moments. If free agent Tavon Young can stay on the field, they will also have a quality nickel playing near the veteran minimum.

Or look at it this way: Alexander, Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes will cost the Pack $32 million this year, while Johnson, Gordon and Young will ding the Bears just $5.5 million.

Alexander is the best of that group of six today, but he isn’t anywhere near $27 million better than Johnson. It will be a horse race to see which group is the better trio and for how long.

Quarterbacks, receivers, edge rushers and defensive backs all come at a real premium in today’s NFL, but especially cornerbacks. Derek Stingley Jr. and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner went third and fourth overall in the draft, marking the first time two have gone in the top five in the last 25 years.

Over the past four seasons, all eight of the first-team All-Pro corners, and 12 of the 16 first- and second-team All-Pros at the position, have been in the playoffs. Teams with the best cornerbacks are usually competing late into the year.

As for Bears rookie safety Jaquan Brisker, the 48th overall pick, beyond desperately needing a starter at safety, Poles also drafted into the strength of this year’s draft. After just one safety went in the first round of the previous three drafts, three were taken there this year and seven were selected in the first two rounds.

If Johnson, Gordon and Brisker all prove to be what many project they will become, Poles is going to look pretty sharp – even if the passing game has to wait another year.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is the Senior Bears Analyst for Shaw Local News Network and ShawLocal.com.