2023 NFL Free Agency: Chicago Bears land two of the top free-agent LBs in Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) looks on during warmups before an AFC divisional round game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bears are a franchise notorious for fielding elite defenses with a hard-hitting linebacker or two in the middle, whether it be the days of Dick Butkus and the Monsters of the Midway, Mike Singletary and the 1985 Bears or Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs of the Bears defenses of the 2000s.

Bears general manager Ryan Poles appears to want to bring the franchise back to those days, as he brought in not just one, but two of the top linebackers in this year’s free agent class: Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards.

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Edmunds was the second of the Bills’ two first-rounders in 2018, the first being some kid out of Wyoming named Josh Allen. The Virginia Tech product was a part of history in that class, as he and his brother Terrell were the first siblings to both go in the first round of the same NFL draft. Tremaine was also the second-youngest player ever to be selected in the first round, at 19 years old, and the youngest to ever record an NFL interception. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Edmunds is huge even by the previous standards for the position while also running a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, making him about as freaky an athlete as there’s ever been at linebacker.

However, his youth showed at times, as Edmunds struggled mightily in his first four years, failing to record a season-long PFF grade above 60.0 in any of his first four NFL seasons, despite being named to two Pro Bowls during that stretch.

Yet, a switch flipped for him in Year 5 and he had far and away his best season. Edmunds set career bests across the board, including an 81.9 overall grade, the fifth best at the position and a massive improvement over his previous best of 59.4 in 2019.

What helped him the most was his performance in coverage. It feels impossible to improve in coverage as much as Edmunds did between 2021 and 2022. In the former season, Edmunds was a liability in that regard, posting an abysmal 34.6 grade, the fifth-worst mark among linebackers to play at least 20% of their team’s defensive snaps.

Yet in 2022, it was the complete opposite. Edmunds posted the best coverage grade in the NFL, an elite 90.0. He also recorded career bests in completion percentage allowed (68.7), yards allowed (359) and yards per reception (7.8) with a position-leading 10 pass breakups. This breakout performance earned him a four-year $72 million deal from the Bears with $50 million guaranteed. Considering Edmunds doesn’t turn 25 until May, it appears likely that his best years are still ahead of him.

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Unlike Edmunds, Edwards went undrafted out of Wisconsin in 2019 and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played well as a rookie, albeit on limited playing time, and steadily improved every year as he saw the field more and more. His performance hit new levels in 2022, when he showed he was among the best all-around linebackers in the league, grading well as a run defender, a pass rusher and in coverage.

Edwards put up grades of 79.0 against the run, 79.5 as a pass rusher and 78.4 in coverage — all while anchoring a Philadelphia Eagles defense that was an untimely defensive holding penalty away from potentially hoisting the franchise’s second-ever Lombardi Trophy. Edwards turns 27 in August and signed what appears to be a team-friendly, three-year, $19.5 million deal — $7.9 million of which is guaranteed with an out after one year.

One thing between Edmunds and Edwards stands out: Both are among the best linebackers in coverage. Last season, the Bears were the eighth-worst defense in coverage, sporting a 60.8 grade as a team. They didn’t get much support in that regard from the linebacker spot, as their two highest-graded linebackers in coverage, Matthew Adams and Jack Sanborn, barely reached 200 combined coverage snaps.

With the NFL becoming more of a passing league with every season, the Bears are making strides toward adapting in the right direction and going after the type of players capable of limiting the next wave of young passers who are running roughshod over the league.


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