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Emma: Jaylon Johnson’s breakthrough season reset negotiations with Bears

1 month agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — After a breakdown in contract negotiations back in late October, Jaylon Johnson requested a trade from the Bears with hopes of securing his financial future. Those wishes never came to fruition in part due to a wise train of thought from Ryan Poles.

Poles would only deal the 24-year-old Johnson if he believed the Bears could properly replace him, meaning they would have to land a first- or high second-round pick back in return. A trade market never developed, and Johnson finished out his fourth season with the Bears producing a stellar performance. He earned Pro Bowl honors and second-team All-Pro recognition, finishing as the No. 1 cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Just as Johnson increased his own market value, Poles and the Bears are far less inclined to lose their star cornerback.

“Jaylon is not going to go anywhere,” Poles said at the conclusion of this season.

The Bears and Johnson’s representation have not actively engaged in contract negotiations since late October, when they two parties met in Los Angeles prior to a game against the Chargers. Poles believed a deal could be reached during that meeting. One day later, Johnson formally requested a trade from Chicago.

Johnson said early this season that his intentions were to earn his respect at the negotiating table – not to reset the market for cornerbacks. He may just do that anyway after a breakthrough season with 4 interceptions and strong play in coverage. The terms and tenor of those contract talks have changed since late October because of how Johnson performed.

Jaire Alexander (Packers) leads all cornerbacks with a four-year, $84-million deal. Johnson could break into the top five of cornerback contracts with a deal worth more than $19.4 million, which is what Trevon Diggs (Cowboys) commands on a five-year, $97-million deal.

These contract negotiations have become a bit more complicated because Johnson won the bet on himself. He put himself in position to land that lucrative long-term deal he has coveted.

The Bears aren’t prepared to let Johnson explore the open market this offseason, and that’s not what he wants either.

“I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” Johnson said in late December. “It’s easy to say, oh, you want out of somewhere until you get it and then it’s like, ‘Ah, this may not be quite what I want.’ But I would say for me, I want to stay here, and I want to not make that transition now. I feel like we’re building something special, too, especially with the guys in the locker room. I mean, it’s something I can’t get anywhere else. I would like to stay and continue to build, make it better. And (shoot), I want to win some games and get to the playoffs and make a push with the Chicago name, too.”

In this pivotal offseason for the Bears, signing Johnson to a contract extension will be a priority on Poles’ desk inside his second-floor office at Halas Hall. But it’s one that may fall to the backburner given the complex nature in place.

Johnson is fully expecting the Bears to tender the franchise tag in March, which would pay him a projected $18.4 million for 2024. But that is mostly a means through which Chicago can keep Johnson from entering free agency. In doing so, the two sides would have until mid-July to strike a contract extension.

The Bears are not ready to let Johnson leave, while he’s hoping to finally corner in on that long-term security. There’s motivation to get a deal done. But it remains to be seen when a contract could be signed.

Methodical search for an offensive coordinator

The Bears are conducting a careful search for their next offensive coordinator, understanding the significance of this hire as well as the layers involved.

Matt Eberflus, a defensive-minded head coach, must tab the right leader to oversee the Bears’ offense. They are conducting this search without true clarity on their future at quarterback. But this isn’t an example of putting the cart before the horse.

The Bears have set up or conducted interviews with nine different candidates, including a scheduled meeting in Los Angeles with former Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who spent last season at USC working alongside prized quarterback prospect Caleb Williams.

The Bears have interviewed six candidates who hail from the Shanahan tree and run the outside zone running scheme that Eberflus covets. Those candidates are Shane Waldron (Seahawks offensive coordinator), Klint Kubiak (49ers offensive passing game specialist), Liam Coen (Kentucky offensive coordinator), Zac Robinson (Rams quarterbacks coach), Greg Olson (Seahawks quarterbacks coach) and Thomas Brown (Panthers offensive coordinator).

The Bears have also met with Marcus Brady, whom Eberflus worked alongside with the Colts, and former Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. It has been clear throughout this process that Eberflus is conducting a thorough search and leaving all options open – including different schemes and fits for his personnel.

“I think that it’s important to gather the information, but also taking our time to be able to digest that and make a great decision,” Eberflus said. “So, we’ll do that.”

The Bears are one of 14 teams in the market for an offensive coordinator in this hiring cycle, this as eight head-coaching positions became available. Though there are plenty of opportunities for coveted candidates, Chicago has an appealing position because of the potential set at quarterback.

The Bears must decide this offseason whether to invest in Justin Fields or select their next quarterback in the draft, with the Heisman Trophy-winning Williams considered the top prospect available. First, Eberflus must identify the right fit to lead his offense.

Eberflus is leaving no stone unturned in this search.

Cunningham still a candidate

The Bears could see a key departure from their front office in the coming days.

Ian Cunningham, the Bears’ assistant general manager, is a strong candidate to be hired for the Chargers’ general manager position. He interviewed for the role last Sunday and could soon land in Los Angeles. Bears co-director of player personnel Jeff King was also interviewed for the Chargers’ position Friday.

“I want to produce as many GMs in this league as possible,” Poles said. “I think that’s a big thing. So, I’m proud of them, but at the same time those are big shoes to fill in terms of helping run the front office and get things done in evaluating players. That’s why development is so important to me in terms of our scouting assistants up to our area scouts — make sure they’re developed so everyone can keep taking that step up. If anyone’s listening, Ian’s a stud.”

Cunningham was a finalist for the Commanders’ general manager vacancy, which ultimately went to 49ers executive Adam Peters.

Cunningham was brought in by Poles as the Bears’ first ever assistant general manager. He’s a highly regarded scout and executive who won Super Bowl rings with the Ravens and Eagles.

If Cunningham is hired as general manager, the Bears would receive compensatory third-round picks in each of the next two NFL Drafts as part of the Rooney Rule.

Head Coach Hightower

Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower will serve as the head coach of the East team in the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 1 in Frisco, Texas.

Hightower along with linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi, the East team’s defensive coordinator, will get an up-close evaluation opportunity for one of the most prestigious scouting games.

Last season, then-Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy served as a coach during the Senior Bowl. Chicago selected four players from the Senior Bowl in the draft, plus quarterback Tyson Bagent – Getsy’s quarterback from the game – was signed as an undrafted free agent.

The Bears will get another opportunity for close access to these draft prospects.

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