The Chicago Bears officially kicked off their 2023 organized team activities at the start of the week, but there were a few expected starters absent for the first two practices, including one of their most significant free agent signings.
The Bears did not have cornerback Jaylon Johnson, right guard Nate Davis, wide receiver Darnell Mooney or free agent Eddie Jackson present for May 23’s first practice open to the media. The latter two aren’t that surprising considering both Mooney and Jackson are coming off season-ending injuries, but Johnson and Davis raise eyebrows.
Johnson has been transparent about his desire to get a contract extension done with the Bears following his third season in the league. He also told NBC Sports Chicago back in February that he expected negotiations to “heat up” once the first phase of free agency concluded. While it is unclear if the 2020 second-round pick’s absence is linked to his contract situation, it is certainly worth monitoring as the offseason workouts continue.
Davis is a different story. The 26-year-old interior lineman was signed to a three-year, $30 million contract to become the Bears’ new starting right guard in March, creating an expectation that he would use the voluntary portion of the team’s offseason workouts to get more acquainted with the new offensive system. Davis, however, skipped the voluntary portion of Tennessee’s OTAs last spring and may simply have a preference.
“I’ll just share that this is a voluntary time for all the players, and some players have certain things going on,” Bears head coach Matt Eberflus said Tuesday when asked about the veteran absences. “But again, it’s their right to be here or not be here. We’ll coach the guys that are here.”
Bears Had Ja’Tyre Carter at RG Without Nate Davis
Davis not attending the Bears’ first two voluntary practices is a minor issue that likely won’t matter in the grand scheme of things as long as he is present for the mandatory portion of the offseason program in June. Not having him around, though, could open a door for 2022 seventh-rounder Ja’Tyre Carter to solidify a backup role for himself.
According to Mark Grote of WSCR Radio, the Bears primarily rolled with a starting offensive line alignment of Braxton Jones (left tackle), Teven Jenkins (left guard), Cody Whitehair (center), Carter (right guard) and first-round rookie Darnell Wright (right tackle) for Tuesday’s practice. While best practice is typically to avoid reading too much into the offseason tinkerings of the offensive line, it is notable that Carter was their first choice to step up and fill in for Davis during his absence.
The Bears also have Lucas Patrick and Alex Leatherwood as options for their right guard position. Though Patrick is expected to compete with Whitehair for the starting center job, he does have experience at the other interior spots from his time with the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, Leatherwood — a former first-rounder –played far more snaps at guard (847) than tackle (284) when he was still in Las Vegas.
The fact that Carter is getting priority over both of them — as well as Dieter Eiselen — is a promising sign for his efforts to win a roster spot with the team for the 2023 season.
How Likely Are Bears to Extend Jaylon Johnson?
Johnson has been the Bears’ top cornerback for the past two seasons and, over that time, has developed into one of the more reliable coverage pieces in their secondary, but a contract extension for the 24-year-old corner is no sure thing heading into 2023.
Last season, Johnson was one of the lone bright spots for Chicago’s defense, playing some of his best football down the stretch before spending the final three games on injured reserve with injuries to his finger and ribs. He also got a ringing endorsement from Aaron Rodgers, who called him one of the league’s “premier” corners after their Week 13 matchup. While he doesn’t fill up the box score with splash plays (just one interception in three seasons), he has quietly become an up-and-comer in the NFL.
The Bears, however, have drafted three cornerbacks in the past two offseasons, including trading up in the second round of 2023 to get Tyrique Stevenson. Between him, fifth-round rookie Terell Smith and 2022 second-rounder Kyler Gordon, the young talent is starting to stack up behind Johnson and provide the Bears with some safeguards in the event negotiations with Johnson don’t go as planned.
Now, Bears general manager Ryan Poles has expressed an interest in signing Johnson to a new contract, telling reporters after Day 2 of the 2023 draft that he hopes “he’s a guy we get to keep here for a while.” Poles has used similar language in the past for other contract situations, though, such as with running back David Montgomery (now with the Detroit Lions) and Roquan Smith (traded to the Baltimore Ravens).
The Bears certainly have the funds available to make Johnson a compelling offer with about $32.5 million in cap space left for 2023 and roughly $96 million available in 2024, per Over the Cap. In terms of price tag, it would be reasonable for Johnson to want similar money to what Shaquill Griffin (three years, $40 million) and Carlton Davis (three years, $44.5 million) got in their second contracts.
Are the Bears pounding the table to get a new contract in place, though? Or would they rather see how their trio of young corners perform before making any long-term calls? Stay tuned.