Bears Out of Running for High-Level Free Agent Target: Report

Payne Tag Bears Target

Getty Bears general manager Ryan Poles will have one less veteran defensive tackle to consider in free agency.

The sun is setting on the possibility of Daron Payne joining the Chicago Bears.

According to Ben Standig of The Athletic, the Washington Commanders are expected to place the franchise tag on Payne, their veteran defensive tackle, in order to prevent him from hitting free agency next month. Once Payne signs his tag, he will be locked in for another season in Washington on a one-year, $18.937 million deal.

While the Commanders’ decision to tag Payne isn’t too surprising, it does take one potential high-profile target off the board for Chicago. The 25-year-old Pro Bowler was set to be one of the top free agents on the market in 2023 after recording a career-high 11.5 sacks last season and would have been an obvious candidate for the Bears, who desperately need an accomplished 3-tech tackle to serve as the engine of their defense.

The good news is Chicago still has plenty of resources to find a proper centerpiece for its defensive line. Not only do the Bears hold the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft, but they also have roughly $99 million to work with in cap space, which could set them up to make a high-level acquisition in free agency or through the trade market.

The Bears have a little less than a month left to wait before the NFL’s legal tampering period opens on March 13, at which point they can begin to negotiate with outside free agents in the 2023 class. The official start to free agency is 4 p.m. ET on March 15.

Which Other Free Agent DTs Make Sense for Bears?

Payne might be coming off the board for the Bears, but there are still a few other defensive tackles who could make sense for them once free agency begins.

In terms of high-profile options, Javon Hargrave is the next best veteran choice. He was an absolute monster in the trenches for the Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia Eagles, recording a career-high 11 sacks along with 16 quarterback hits and 60 total tackles. And while him already being 30 might not make him as much of a long-term solution as someone like Payne, he proved with his performance in 2022 that he could still have several more quality seasons left in the tank before he wraps his career.

According to Heavy Sports insider Matt Lombardo, it is expected Hargrave will garner “significant” interest around the league if the Eagles choose not to re-sign him, but the Bears will have enough cap space to contend with anyone — if it is a matter of price.

There is also Denver Broncos defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones, who is capable of playing both defensive end and the 3-tech role. Jones is less accomplished than either Payne or Hargrave, but he has averaged about six sacks over his last three seasons and would be a steady, versatile choice for the Bears that wouldn’t break the bank. He also might have the most untapped potential, depending on who else surrounds him.

Jalen Carter Could Still Offer Best Answer for Bears

Carter Bears Payne

GettyJalen Carter #88 of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrates with a newspaper reading “Perfect!” after defeating the TCU Horned Frogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship game at SoFi Stadium on January 09, 2023 in Inglewood, California. Georgia defeated TCU 65-7. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Fortunately, the Bears don’t have to feel panicked about finding the perfect defensive tackle in free agency. That’s because, with the No. 1 pick in their hands, they can always go with a fallback plan in the draft of using their top selection on Georgia’s Jalen Carter.

Carter is right up there with Alabama defensive end Will Anderson Jr. as the unanimous top two defenders of the 2023 draft class. He generated 66 pressures and 15.5 tackles for a loss over his final two seasons with the Bulldogs and would be a home-run fit for Eberflus’ defense. Even better, if the Bears decide they love him, they need to do nothing more than take him at No. 1 overall to make it happen — even though there is a good chance they could trade down as far as No. 4 and still land him.

One of the great things about drafting Carter, even at No. 1, is the Bears would have him on a controllable contract for the next half-decade. Instead of shelling out $20 million or more per season on a veteran defensive tackle, they could invest those resources in other positions and focus on home-growing Carter into a star.

The only real argument against Carter is … well, Anderson. Let’s assume the Bears don’t trade out of the top four and decide to focus on one of the Big 2. Anderson could have just as much appeal to them — maybe even more — with scouts raving about how he could be one of the best pass-rushing prospects to come into the league in years. The Bears could certainly stand to add talent at every spot of their defensive line, and depending on how free agency shakes out, Anderson could end up making more sense.

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