Move on over, Jack Sanborn. The Chicago Bears have found themselves a new playmaker for the middle of their defense in 2023.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the Bears are signing former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards to a three-year, $19.5 million contract with $12 million guaranteed. The 26-year-old played middle linebacker for the Super Bowl runner-up Eagles and their 4-3 defense and is expected to fill the same role in Chicago’s scheme.
Edwards is coming off an impressive season for the Eagles in which he recorded 159 total tackles — seventh-most in the league in 2022 — along with two sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, five quarterback hits, seven pass deflections and a fumble recovery over 17 starts. According to Pro Football Focus, he also recorded 51 defensive stops and received the fifth-highest grade for run defense (83.4) among all linebackers who played at least 80% of their team’s defensive snaps last season, beating out Roquan Smith (77.0).
Based on the contract details Rapoport reported, the Ravens will be paying more for one year of Smith (an average annual value of $20 million) than the Bears will pay for Edwards over the next three seasons combined ($6.5 million AAV).
The Bears’ new deal with Edwards will become official when the new league year officially begins at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 15.
Jack Sanborn Will Now Compete for Strongside Role
Edwards was an excellent first signing for the Bears to kick off the first wave of 2023 free agency. He was a tremendous run defender in 2022 and comes to Chicago with experience leading a championship-caliber defense, something that should raise the bar for one of the worst defensive units in the league last season. Edwards’ arrival, though, does signal that Sanborn, the undrafted rookie standout, will need a new role for 2023.
After Smith was traded in the middle of the 2022 season, Sanborn slid into the middle linebacker role and was unexpectedly good at picking up the slack for an undrafted rookie, providing a hard-hitting physical presence that netted him 59 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery over six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 15. The good news, though, is Sanborn’s blend of speed and physicality makes him an ideal fit for Chicago’s strongside spot alongside Edwards in the middle.
Sanborn will still have to compete for the starting strongside job in the offseason, but right now he is one of the better young defensive talents on the Bears’ 2023 roster and should be able to lock things down even if the Bears continue to add at linebacker.
Could Bears Still Pursue Colts LB Bobby Okereke?
The Bears have already made one signing splash at linebacker, but could they make another one before the first wave of free agency is over? Longtime Bears insider Brad Biggs of The Chicago Tribune believes they could still be in play for former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke.
“#Bears addition of T.J. Edwards will not preclude them from pursuing Bobby Okereke [as] the weak-side linebacker,” Biggs tweeted after news broke about Edwards. “Edwards figures to slot at the middle linebacker. Jack Sanborn will likely compete at the strong-side LB.”
Okereke has been one of the most popular potential targets for the Bears heading into the start of free agency with his experience and prior connection with head coach Matt Eberflus making him a strong possible fit for Chicago’s defense. While his price tag figures to be much higher than Edwards — Jordan Schultz of The Score reported he could be chasing between $12 million and $14 million per season — the Bears would go from a below-average linebacker corps to one of the better units in the NFL if they loaded up with Okereke, Edwards and Sanborn as their starting three.