The one thing to expect over the course of the NFL offseason is the unexpected, and the lead up to the 2023 free agent market has been no different. As Tuesday’s franchise tag deadline came and went, there were a few curveballs that will drastically alter how teams approach the legal tampering period, which begins next week. For the Bears, it will be no different. Some players who had a chance to hit the market, like Saquon Barkley, won’t be available. Others who seemed sure to be tagged will instead become free agents, like Orlando Brown Jr. Here is a list of five players who could appear on Ryan Poles’ and Matt Eberflus’ wishlist now that we have a clearer picture of who will become free agents on Mar. 15.
ORLANDO BROWN JR. - LEFT TACKLE
High end left tackles in the prime of their career don’t hit free agency very often, so there’s likely to be numerous bidders for Brown Jr.’s services. He’s one of the most reliable tackles in the league and hasn’t missed a start since he earned a starting job in Week 7 of 2018, his rookie season. Brown Jr. has been a Pro Bowler every year since 2019 and would instantly solidify the line, by both helping to defend Justin Fields’ blind side and by allowing the Bears to move Braxton Jones to right tackle. Last season, Brown Jr. earned a 94.2 EFF rating from PFF in true pass sets, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks allowed. That would’ve led the Bears, as Larry Borom finished the year with a 93.0 rating, Riley Reiff had 92.9 and Jones finished at 90.5. Brown Jr. also has a connection to Poles from their time together in Kansas City.
JAVON HARGRAVE - DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Daron Payne received the franchise tag well ahead of the deadline, so the Bears have known for a bit that they’d need to update their defensive tackle free agent list. Upgrading the entire DL is probably priority No. 1 for the Bears, so the team will need to address it in both free agency and the draft. With Payne off the board, Hargrave is the next best option on the open market. He’s been an absolute force for the Eagles, and seems to get better with age. Hargrave is coming off a career year with 11 sacks, 10 TFLs, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He had a great 2021 campaign as well, and earned Pro Bowl honors that year. Three-tech DT is the coveted position in Eberflus’ defense and Hargrave can certainly slot in there, but he can also play nose tackle so he provides some positional versatility. Wherever he lines up, Hargrave instantly raises the profile of the team’s entire line.
FRANK CLARK - DEFENSIVE END
Clark is another player with a connection to Poles from their time together in KC. After a pedestrian regular season, Clark turned it on in the postseason with 2.5 sacks and three TFLs on the Chiefs’ path to a second Super Bowl. In fact, Clark often saves his best for the biggest games. In 17 career postseason games, Clark has 13.5 sacks, 20 QB hits and 16 TFLs. That championship experience is something the Bears will need in the locker room as the team tries to develop a winning culture in their young locker room. It’s unclear how well Clark would fit in Eberflus’ scheme since he often rushes from a standing position, which the Bears almost never did in 2022. Clark also lines up anywhere from outside the tackle to outside the tight end. He made three-straight Pro Bowls from 2019-2021.
DAVID MONTGOMERY - RUNNING BACK
It seemed like a long shot for the Bears to sign Saquon Barkley in free agency, but after the Giants franchise tagged him, any dreams of seeing Barkley in a Bears uniform died. The same can be said for other top end running backs, Tony Pollard and Josh Jacobs. With three premier rushers off the table, what initially looked like a stacked free agent class is suddenly much thinner. The Bears could opt to sign no free agent RBs, move forward with Khalil Herbert as the lead rusher with a rookie working behind him. But Montgomery has proven himself as a reliable playmaker in short-yardage situations, in the passing game and as a dependable blocker when picking up the blitz. Those are all valuable contributions, and give the Bears a more complete running back room.
BOBBY OKEREKE - LINEBACKER
The Vikings cut Eric Kendricks, adding another veteran inside linebacker to the mix, but Okereke is still the guy for the Bears. Okereke is much younger and is still ascending, while Kendricks is probably on the back end of his career. Okereke is also more of a playmaker when stripping the ball, which is a must in Eberflus’ defense. In just four seasons, Okereke has four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Kendricks’ numbers are nearly identical with four FFs and six FRs, except his numbers come over eight seasons. Okereke has also proven he can rack up tackles without too many whiffs, which the Bears need. He also played in Eberflus’ defense for three years in Indianapolis, so he knows exactly what’s expected in his H.I.T.S. program.