NFC North Notes: Bears, CJGJ, Vikings

The last time an NFL team used a franchise tag on a cornerback, the Bears were planning a Jay Cutler-to-Mike Glennon QB transition. Occurring back in 2017, Rams’ second Trumaine Johnson tag remains the most recent instance of a team tagging a corner. Mentioned as a possibility here when the Bears let Jaylon Johnson seek a trade, the contract-year defender being tagged adds up now that Montez Sweat is locked down via an extension. The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs views it as likely the Bears tag Johnson to give them more time to work out an extension.

Receiving his first Pro Bowl invite this week, Johnson has put together a quality contract season — one he acknowledges has made him more money on his second contract. Johnson said in June he wanted that second accord to be with the Bears and reiterated that stance last month. Although the prospect of reaching free agency would understandably appeal to the former second-round pick, the Bears — the most recent team to use any tag on a cornerback, transition-tagging Kyle Fuller in 2018 — can keep Johnson in the fold via a one-year rental or attempt to hammer out an extension by the July deadline. The cornerback tag is expected to cost just more than $18MM.

Here is the latest from the NFC North:

  • The Bears’ plan to move Cody Whitehair back to center did not take off. Snapping issues plagued the veteran, while Pro Football Focus rates 2022 free agency pickup Lucas Patrick 31st among centers this season. Chicago is expected to pursue a center upgrade this year, Biggs notes, with The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain also predicting the team will aim to stabilize this spot (subscription required). Whitehair, 30, profiles as a cut candidate; he is due a nonguaranteed $10.15MM base salary in his 2024 contract year. Patrick has one game left on a two-year, $8MM deal. The Bears have some wiggle room here, with three starting O-linemen — Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins, Darnell Wright — on rookie contracts. A handful of teams re-signed centers in 2023, but four-year starters Tyler Biadasz (Cowboys) and Lloyd Cushenberry (Broncos) are two months from free agency. Three-year Raiders center Andre James is as well.
  • C.J. Gardner-Johnson‘s return from a torn pec will give the Lions an unexpected boost for their playoff journey. It also could disrupt the team’s secondary. Ifeatu Melifonwu has been effective since usurping Tracy Walker as a starter alongside Kerby Joseph. The Lions initially stationed Gardner-Johnson in the slot, where he previously played under ex-Saints DBs coach Aaron Glenn, but the Lions DC moved him back to safety to accommodate rookie Brian Branch. Glenn said (via the Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett) the team is still determining its DB plan but confirmed Branch will remain the team’s slot corner. A safety rotation, then, seems likely to commence. Designated for return from IR last week, Gardner-Johnson is expected to return in Week 18.
  • Danielle Hunter maxed out his incentive package this season, with the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling noting the contract-year Vikings defender collected $3MM by reaching the 14-sack plateau. Positioning himself to do well as a first-time free agent, Hunter has registered a career-high 15.5 sacks. On what could be his final Vikings restructure, the 29-year-old edge rusher received $17MM guaranteed and added $3MM in incentives this season. This latest reworking prevents Hunter from being tagged this year, and the Vikings would be hit with a $14.9MM dead-money charge if they cannot re-sign their top sack artist the 2024 league year.
  • In the strange position of seeing both its top free agents-to-be — Hunter and Kirk Cousins — not profile as tag candidates (due to Cousins having already been tagged twice by Washington), Minnesota has big decisions to make soon. Cousins is at least ahead of schedule on his Achilles rehab odyssey, Goessling adds. Cousins, 35, should be expected back for training camp at the latest and has expressed continued interest in another Vikings contract. If the Vikings cannot re-sign Cousins by March 13 — the last day of the 2023 league year — they will face a $28.5MM dead-money total due to the void years in the leverage maven’s contract.
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