The Bears allowed cornerback Jaylon Johnson to seek out potential trade partners ahead of Tuesday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, but no deal emerged by the deadline.
Johnson, who is 24 years old, will remain in the Bears’ secondary through the remainder of the 2023 season. In a splash move earlier in the day, the Bears traded a second-round draft pick for Washington Commanders defensive end Montez Sweat.
All in all, the Bears improved their defense in the short term. What it means in the long term is that the Bears have some serious contract negotiations to attend to. Both Johnson and Sweat are in the final year of their respective rookie contracts.
The Bears and Johnson reportedly tried to agree on a contract extension over the previous week. Just nine days ago, Johnson had two interceptions for the Bears in a win over the Las Vegas Raiders, sparking a discussion about his future.
But those extension talks appeared to hit a snag as Tuesday’s trade deadline neared. Johnson has made about $5.7 million dollars over the course of his rookie deal. A top veteran cornerback these days will cost a team more than $15 million per season.
Bears general manager Ryan Poles has thus far been selective when it comes to handing out big contract extensions. Tight end Cole Kmet is the only homegrown talent drafted by the previous GM who has received a high-paying extension from Poles. Kmet signed a four-year, $50 million deal in late July. Under former GM Ryan Pace, the Bears originally drafted Johnson with a 2020 second-round pick, just seven spots after they selected Kmet.
Now, the Bears will have to go back to the drawing board with Johnson. That could happen at any point during the remainder of the season.
Simply put, Johnson wants to be paid.
“I wanted [a contract extension] as early as possible, of course, heading into the season and things like that,” Johnson said last week. “[I’m] not really caught up in exactly how [it gets done], but hoping it plays out the way I want it to.”
I wanted [a contract extension] as early as possible, of course, heading into the season and things like that. [I’m] not really caught up in exactly how [it gets done], but hoping it plays out the way I want it to.”— Jaylon Johnson, Bears cornerback
It stands to reason that if both sides could agree on what Johnson was worth, a deal would’ve been done long ago.
As for Sweat, the Bears wouldn’t have traded for him if they didn’t think they could sign him to a new contract. Sweat, 27, has 6.5 sacks already this season. He was one of two highly sought-after defensive ends who the Commanders traded Tuesday. San Francisco traded for Chase Young as well.
In exchange for Sweat, the Bears traded away their own second-round pick, which would be the No. 35 overall pick if the season ended today.
A top edge rusher in the prime of his career could cost the Bears $20 million a year. Sweat is a talented pass rusher with 35.5 career sacks and nine forced fumbles in 67 games over the past five seasons. The Bears will have the chance to work with him over the next two months and they will have first crack at signing him before he hits free agency.
After the two deals, the Bears currently have six selections in April’s NFL draft: two first-round picks (their own and Carolina’s), a third-round pick, two fourth-round picks (theirs and Philadelphia’s) and a fifth-round pick.
With a 2-6 record, the Bears didn’t necessarily appear to be a team that would be buying at the trade deadline. But Poles has remained aggressive at the trade deadline over his two seasons as GM. While a year ago he did shed players on expiring contracts like Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith, he also bought in on receiver Chase Claypool.
The Claypool experiment, obviously, did not work out well. The Bears traded Claypool to Miami in early October. The Sweat trade is different because Sweat is going to need a new contract once the 2023 season ends.
In their back pocket, the Bears still hold the franchise tag. If they can’t agree to an extension with either Johnson or Sweat, they could always tag one of them and force them to remain under contract for another season. Those are typically costly one-year deals, but with $110 million in available cap space next season, the Bears have more cap space than any other NFL team.
In 2023, the franchise tag on a cornerback cost $18.1 million for one season, while the price for a defensive end was $19.7 million. Those numbers will rise slightly in 2024.
For now, though, the Bears have two talented defenders on their roster for the remainder of the 2023 season.