Jaylon Johnson bet on himself — and it paid off. The cornerback is due a big contract, but will it be with the Chicago Bears? – Boston Herald

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Credit Jaylon Johnson for acknowledging the elephant in the room — and finding a way to use it as motivation from the beginning.

Johnson is the rare NFL player who will emerge a big winner for betting on himself and playing out his contract. He’s not alone, but in an era when teams are motivated to give early extensions with the idea of saving a little money and players love to cash in as soon as possible, Johnson is three games from completing the four-year, $6.46 million contract he signed after being drafted in the second round in 2020.

What’s next for Johnson? He likely will sign a contract that makes him one of the higher-paid cornerbacks in the league, and despite some interesting twists in the road — ones that easily could have created acrimony from both sides — it appears the Bears are motivated to get something done.

A few Bears players over the years have played out their deals and wound up being rewarded — but not a lot. Linebacker Lance Briggs got to free agency after completing his rookie contract and playing one season on the franchise tag. He finally received the multiyear contract he was seeking. Center Olin Kreutz went to the marketplace after the 2001 season and got paid, taking substantially less money than the Miami Dolphins offered.

Johnson has talked openly about his situation since the offseason, a refreshing approach considering most players say contract negotiations and/or a pending venture into free agency don’t weigh on their minds.

It’s impressive that a bid for generational wealth has not been a distraction while Johnson has put together his best season and is certainly Pro Bowl-worthy. It’s even more notable considering the dramatic swing of events in late October when general manager Ryan Poles met with Johnson’s agent, Chris Ellison, in Los Angeles before a game against the Chargers. Poles said that in a span of 72 hours he went from believing the sides were close to a deal to Johnson asking for permission to seek a trade.

Poles wound up granting permission, but the Bears were not going to deal him on the cheap, and afterward the sides had no bad blood — which easily can begin brewing when the business side of the sport becomes a front-burner issue for a player. This happens too. Players won’t admit it on the record, but contract negotiations — especially when the player has an injury risk every time he takes the field — can create the kind of pressure that consumes them. If anything, it only has kept Johnson more locked in.

“That speaks volumes about him,” cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke said. “And he’s challenged himself to do the right things and take care of his body and do the type of things you need to do. If you want to be a top-tier player in this league, that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to take care of yourself and you’ve got to study the game.”

The Bears needed more ball production from Johnson to consider paying him the money he was seeking, so talk of a contract went nowhere in the offseason. That was fair. He had one interception and 31 pass breakups in 39 games through his first three seasons, and the 2023 offseason was an opportunity for him to prove his value.

Johnson has checked that box with four interceptions and 10 passes defended, and it’s not as if he has been a gambler and exposed himself to big plays while pressing to create takeaways. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 49.7 when throwing at Johnson, according to Pro Football Reference, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt.

“I’m so happy for him,” Hoke said, “because this is a very, very demanding game. It’s a hard game to play. And I have been very fortunate in my career to have been around a lot of good players at different spots, here included. And I’m always just thrilled to see a player have that type of year. And to continue. And to have the mindset. I know his mindset now is to keep finishing strong and keep playing really high-level football. I’m just thrilled for him.”

If Johnson, who turns 25 in April, makes it to free agency — that is a big if — he projects to be one of the best players available and easily the top cornerback.

“I definitely say I’ve added some money to the value,” he said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, it’s a situation that I feel like is somewhat out of my hands, but we’re going to see how it goes.

Ascending players such as Johnson — guys coming out of their rookie contracts — rarely reach free agency. That’s why Poles traded with the Washington Commanders for Montez Sweat. He knew if he didn’t do the deal, he wouldn’t have the option to bid on Sweat in free agency.

It seems unlikely at this point that Johnson will be a free agent when the 2024 league year opens March 13. Poles has talked about hoping to keep Johnson, and absent an extension, the Bears would have to seriously consider using the franchise or transition tag to create more time for negotiations. Overthecap.com estimates the franchise number for cornerbacks will be $18.4 million with the transition tag at $15.9 million. The Bears wound up bringing 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller back with the seldom-used transition tag in 2018. The window for teams to use a tag is Feb. 20 through March 5.

Poles and his staff are going to have plenty to consider after the season when evaluating the roster, a lot of decisions that stretch beyond the No. 1 topic — what to do at quarterback. The Bears need another quality edge rusher. They have to figure out what to do at free safety with 30-year-old Eddie Jackson. They will need a center and second wide receiver. Allowing Johnson to leave would create a huge need for a defense that has made real strides. It would turn what should be a strength — especially if rookies Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith will improve in Year 2 — into a giant question mark.

Fortunately, Johnson comes across as motivated to remain, even with questions about the future of the coaching staff lingering.

“I want to stay here,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to get something done (here) first (before free agency). But at the end of the day, if something doesn’t get done, then I’m not opposed to any other options. But I would love to stay here. So that’s that.”

What’s apparent is the Bears and Johnson had a gap between their values in October. That’s the only explanation for Johnson seeking permission for a trade when Poles thought the sides were nearing a deal.

Johnson was asked if he gets a “satisfactory” offer from the Bears, would he take it and eschew the opportunity to explore the market? Yes, he said. That’s a smart PR move, but we have no idea how he will define satisfactory.

Players maximize their value when they reach the open market. If the team somehow strikes a deal with him before free agency, he would be richer than he would have been in October or at any other point.

“It’s all I know, honestly,” Johnson said when asked about his desire to return. “I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else. 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 don’t think it’s something I can get anywhere else. I would like to stay and continue to build and make this better, and (shoot), I want to win some games and get to the playoffs and make a push with the Chicago name too.”

All of that sounds good, but keep in mind two key facts.

1. The sides had a big enough gap in late October that Johnson felt his best move was to receive permission to negotiate with other teams.

2. The only way for Johnson to maximize his value is to wait for free agency and see if the team indeed will use a tag.

Emotions haven’t steered things off course, and Poles has been only positive when discussing how Johnson’s game has evolved and his value to the defense. Maybe the Bears have to pay Johnson more than they initially wanted. It could be he’s worth it, and in the long run, that’s a positive for all parties.

In the end, perhaps Poles can use Johnson as a great example for younger players. Keep improving. Keep doing things the right way. Keep things professional. And reap the benefits.

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