Linebacker might not have been the Bears’ top need this offseason, but they ensured the middle of their defense would be the strength of their unit after signing two players to multi-year deals on the first day of free agency. The team signed T.J. Edwards to a three-year contract worth $19.5 million (with $12 guaranteed) and followed up that move with a four-year, $72 million deal (with $50 million guaranteed) for Tremaine Edmunds. While the latter signing certainly fits the billing of a blockbuster, the acquisition of Edwards looks primed to give Chicago more bang for their buck, and he could become one of the best free agency pickups of the offseason.
Many were surprised that they got Edwards for as cheap as they did, as he was expected to sign a deal with a yearly average north of $10 million. The 26-year-old led Philadelphia with 159 tackles (good for seventh-most in the league) and ranked sixth amongst linebackers with a grade of 81.6 from Pro Football Focus. Any way you slice it, he had a standout season for the NFC Champion Eagles.
Edwards was born in Lake Villa, Illinois, and grew up rooting for the Bears, so he is well aware of the expectations for what it means to play linebacker in the Windy City. He will now have the chance to maintain that level of play and make plays for his childhood team.
He began his career as an undrafted free agent with the Eagles in 2019 (when Bears Assistant GM Ian Cunningham was an executive in Philly) and has improved every year since entering the league. While he might not be a physical specimen in the same vein as Edmunds, that has not prevented him from producing at an elite level.
In Chicago, Edwards will reunite with his former college teammate Jack Sanborn, who was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in 2018 when Edwards was a senior. There are too many parallels between the two players to ignore. They both went undrafted due to a presumed lack of athleticism despite possessing the desired instincts and tenacity that teams covet from the linebacker position. Furthermore, they have also proven to be tackle machines capable of making plays from sideline to sideline (which all but disproves their pre-draft analysis).
While Sanborn will have to sustain his early success to be on the same tier as Edwards, he is off to one helluva start to his career. If he can continue ascending, and Edmunds and Edwards both live up to their contracts, it is not hyperbole to say that Chicago will soon boast one of the top linebacking units in the league.
Many were surprised to see Ryan Poles meticulously attack the linebacker position through free agency after he traded Roquan Smith to Baltimore ahead of the trade deadline. However, Chicago entered the offseason with too many needs to count, and the notion of a linebacker room consisting of Edwards, Edmunds, and Sanborn was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The fact that they will be paying their linebacking room roughly $5 million more than Smith will make this year is icing on the cake for the Bears brass.
It remains to be seen where the Bears’ newly revamped linebacking room will line up on gameday, as Sanborn, Edwards, and Edmunds all previously played in the middle of the defense. As such, two of them will have to get comfortable with playing on the outside in Chicago. With that said, it is safe to say that Edwards will produce wherever he lines up. The Bears got themselves a player in the former undrafted rookie.