When Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles met the media on March 11 — the day after he traded the first pick to the Carolina Panthers for receiver DJ Moore and much more — he came equipped with some important buzzwords.
“We got better as a football team,” Poles said that day. “The goal going into this offseason deal was to improve our roster now but also stay flexible in the future so we can stay healthy, opportunistic and continue to get better.”
Flexible. Healthy. Opportunistic.
It’s a trade that will take a couple of years to fully evaluate. But if the NFL Draft was today, the Bears would have the first pick because of that trade. The early returns are good for the Bears, too. Moore has been a hit.
But then Poles struck again last month before the trade deadline. With a healthy salary-cap situation and a flexible approach to roster building, Poles was opportunistic again. He acquired defensive end Montez Sweat from the Washington Commanders on Halloween and then signed him to a four-year, $98 million extension days later.
“It’s capitalizing right now because you start to lose opportunities,” Poles said Nov. 1.
When it comes to other looming decisions for the Bears, those feel like words to remember, too.
If you create a checklist of the five premium positions — the ones that have historically required the most investment from NFL teams over the years — you can see what Poles is trying to do. You can see his plan. The wins aren’t there yet — and they might never be. But Poles is building something. Only one major investment is missing.
When Poles traded the first pick to the Panthers, he established an important pivot point for his rebuild and the future of the organization. He gave himself an opportunity to draft a quarterback in 2024.
That’s if he wants it.
What’s next at quarterback is about when, how and then who.
There are different paths to take. Poles experienced that in Kansas City. He was the Chiefs’ college scouting coordinator in 2013 when the team traded for Alex Smith. In 2017, Poles was the Chiefs’ director of college scouting when they traded up for Patrick Mahomes.
One path could be sticking with Justin Fields, exercising his fifth-year option and then eventually signing him to an extension. That decision would allow the Bears to use their two first-rounders on other positions. They could add more blue-chip talent that will help the entire team.
Jahns: Bears blow it in Detroit, but don’t blame Justin Fields
But the more you hear coach Matt Eberflus, Poles and national reports refer to the need for consistency from Fields, the more it seems as if the organization is already formulating a move for its next quarterback. Having the first pick and potentially two in the top five is a rare opportunity.
Here’s the most important question, though: Who is involved in the evaluations that lead to the Bears’ next quarterback?
And here’s another: If Poles wants to move on from Fields, what does that mean for Eberflus and his staff?
The Bears don’t have to decide to exercise Fields’ fifth-year option until after the draft, which is months after the coaching cycle spins. There are so many questions, and Fields’ play is unlikely to eliminate all of them. It might actually lead to more.
Poles, though, has an opportunity to start over at quarterback and coach. The three most important people for a football team could be all aligned in 2024 and beyond with a roster that has already featured investment in other premium positions.
Eberflus calls it the “Tez Effect” or the “Tez Factor.” The Bears believe they have a game-changer in Sweat. At the very least, he’s the Bears’ best defender up front.
Sweat made his first sack in a Bears uniform against the Lions on Sunday. According to TruMedia, which logs data from Pro Football Focus, Sweat has 11 pressures and four QB hits in three games with the Bears. His best pressure percentage was 21.2 against the Carolina Panthers.
.@_sweat9 gets to Goff 👊
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 19, 2023
Poles described Sweat as a “multiplier,” but it still feels as if some addition is required. DeMarcus Walker is under contract for two more seasons, but there are pass rushers to consider near the top of the draft, starting with UCLA’s Laiatu Latu.
In Eberflus’ scheme, a three-technique defensive tackle should qualify as a premium position, too. It’s an interior pass rusher. Justin Jones, the current starter, is in the final year of his two-year contract. The Bears, though, selected Gervon Dexter with the 53rd pick this year to be that three-technique.
Dexter still needs to develop and then produce more, but he just had his best game this season against the Lions, registering four pressures, two QB hits and a 23.5 pressure percentage.
Right tackle Darnell Wright’s final snap against the Lions followed him into the locker room. After a long, hard-fought game, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson finally beat Wright, got to Fields and forced a fumble that turned into a safety.
“I know Darnell was beating himself up after the game and he’s going to learn from that, get better,” Fields said. “But to help him out, I’ve got to step into the pocket and just help him out.”
Poles shared a moment with Wright, his prized rookie, after the game in the locker room, too. Wright is in the process of becoming a stalwart up front — or everything that Poles said he’d be when the Bears selected him with the 10th pick.
And then there’s left tackle Braxton Jones. He missed six games with a neck injury, but he has quietly put together a solid second season when he’s on the field. If that continues over the next six weeks, it’s potentially another checkmark on Poles’ list. Or will Penn State’s Olu Fashanu be too good to pass up? Poles can be flexible in his approach.
How the Bears turned a chance at a statement win into another inexplicable loss
The Bears granted cornerback Jaylon Johnson permission to seek a trade at midseason, but they never wanted to trade him. It would have taken a first-round pick or a very early second-rounder for the Bears to have a serious conversation.
And if the Bears got it, there’s a good chance they would have used that pick on another cornerback.
The Bears draft that position. Poles took nickelback Kyler Gordon at No. 39 last year and then traded up to select Tyrique Stevenson at No. 56 this year. They’re both starters. The Bears also selected Terrell Smith in the fifth round this year, too.
The next step for the Bears and Poles is re-signing Johnson. With Sweat under contract, the franchise tag (or transition tag) is an option for him. From a negotiation standpoint, it doesn’t help Johnson that he missed two interceptions in the loss against the Lions — including a potential 97-yard pick-six — but he’s still one of the Bears’ best defenders.
The best part of the Bears’ trade with the Panthers for the first pick was Poles’ demand for an active player. He asked for Moore, pass rusher Brian Burns or defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
Believing it’s easier to find receivers, Carolina parted with Moore.
The Bears not only have a No. 1 receiver to aid their evaluation of Fields; they have one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s top 10 in receiving yards and touchdowns — and having that success in a bad passing offense.
But what’s next?
The Bears left the door open for Darnell Mooney’s potential return. Contract talks now favor the team. He’s the Bears’ third-leading receiver behind Moore and tight end Cole Kmet. The season will likely finish that way, too.
Poles and the Bears have to look beyond Mooney, too. Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. should be considered too dynamic and too darn good to pass up in the draft.
With the Bears potentially having two picks in the top five, getting Harrison feels like a must. He’d help Fields — and also the Bears’ next quarterback if they take that path.
Greenberg: Imagine the Bears with Jim Harbaugh and Marvin Harrison Jr. That’s my dream
(Photo of Tyrique Stevenson and Jaylon Johnson: Lon Horwedel / USA Today)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time is on sale now. Order it here.