Jaylon Johnson drama ends where it began: Back with the Bears with a lot to discuss

Johnson requested a trade and got clearance to call other teams, sources said, but no trade materialized and he’s expected back at Halas Hall on Wednesday.

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Jaylon Johnson reacting after a play.

Jaylon Johnson looked for a trade partner, but no deal came together.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The relationship between the Bears and top cornerback Jaylon Johnson was strained — at least — as Johnson felt the stress of his uncertain future heading into the trade deadline. Improbably, the sides came out of it Tuesday with even more awkwardness.

The Bears seemed intent on keeping Johnson and on using the next several months to continue negotiating a contract extension, but Johnson tried to force their hand. He requested a trade late Monday and received permission to talk with other teams, sources said, but no deal materialized.

That means Johnson is expected back at Halas Hall on Wednesday and for the rest of the season. He and general manager Ryan Poles surely have a lot to discuss.

There was more drama than necessary and it’s clear contract talks between the sides have careened, but the outcome was a good one for the Bears: They still have one of their best young players and avenues to ensure they keep him.

Unloading Johnson, especially on a day when Poles swung big by trading for Commanders pass rusher Montez Sweat, would’ve been another setback in the rebuild. He already dealt a proven young talent in linebacker Roquan Smith last year, and sending players of that caliber out of the building is counterproductive.

The Smith move looked like a mistake at the time, and it has been confirmed since. The Ravens were more than happy to meet his $100 million contract request, he was an All-Pro for the first time last season and he looks well on his way to earning that honor again this season.

Poles didn’t inherit much from predecessor Ryan Pace, but Smith and Johnson were valuable pieces.

Johnson and agent Chris Ellison made their move so late that they had only about 16 hours to find a workable situation, which would have required the difficult balance of finding a team willing to meet Johnson’s contract demands and give Poles what he was looking for as a return asset. They were unlikely to pull that together.

Now Poles can bring Johnson back to the table, perhaps with more leverage. The Bears can continue negotiating a contract extension and, if they must, buy more time by using the franchise or transition tag on Johnson to block him from leaving in free agency.

Assuming they get a deal done with Sweat, the Bears wouldn’t need to use a tag on anyone other than Johnson.

At some point, however, they’ll have to agree on fair pay.

It has looked for months as though Poles and Johnson eventually would meet in the middle. Everything sounded amicable as Poles reiterated he wanted Johnson as a fixture of his promising, young secondary. Johnson, meanwhile, assured the Bears he had no intention of following Smith’s path of going public with a trade demand, imploring chairman George McCaskey to intervene and sitting out weeks of training camp.

Johnson was nothing but amicable until he felt he had no choice. As it got closer to the trade deadline and Poles wasn’t moving far enough in his direction, he turned to the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.

Players and GMs sometimes come back from trade demands — it happened between the Dolphins and star cornerback Xavien Howard, who got a five-year, $90 million contract — but it’s not common. The damage often is too deep and personal to repair, and a good player can get his money elsewhere.

Poles can’t let that happen. The secondary is the one unit on the Bears’ roster that appears to be built for the long run, and Johnson is the leader of it at just 24. He’s entering his prime, and the Bears need to make sure his best seasons are in their uniform.

Poles got this job on the strength of his personnel judgment and people skills, and it’ll take both to fix this. Because regardless of who’s to blame, Johnson leaving would put the Bears even further away from competing. And that would be a big problem for Poles.

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