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Secondary Rebuilt, Weapons Lacking: Assessing the 2022 NFL Draft in the Context of 2023

| May 1st, 2022

The texts buzzed my nightstand unprompted, piercing through the endless, awkward chuckling of Robert Mays and Nate Tice, as I tried to force myself to sleep on Friday evening. (I decided to take a brief, week-long booze sabbatical and it makes slumber a tricky enterprise.) The scout who I have relied upon this week to fill me in on all things draft was giving his assessment of Ryan Poles’ work over rounds two and three.



This is not someone who has any reason to inflate the work of the GM of the Chicago Bears. He has zero stake in the game. This was a professional talent evaluator evaluating the talent selected; examining the players acquired in a draft he has routinely described to me as “the weakest in the last 15 years.”

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The Complaints.

Listen, the complaints are understandable. A logical case could have been made for the Bears to spend every single pick Friday night on the offensive side of the ball. One could argue that taking shots on the potential of George Pickens or Alec Pierce or Skyy Moore is more exciting (undoubtedly) and more in-tune with the modern game. But if that’s the case, why were the Baltimore Ravens universally celebrated for their work in the first round, securing a box safety and center while trading away their best outside receiver?

Pickens will be asked to do very little in Pittsburgh (and will do little with those quarterbacks). Pierce and Moore will be no more than third options on their rosters in Indianapolis and Kansas City. The Bears would have been asking all three to start on day one and seriously contribute as rookies. Does anyone actually believe these three players are capable of that? If they were, would several receiver-needy clubs have gleefully passed on them at the backend of the first round?

But most complaints coming from fans are actually based on a fallacy. Bears fans seem to believe the organization needs to pile talent around Justin Fields to accurately assess his ability as a quarterback and make determinations on his future. That is definitively not the case. Ryan Poles and Justin Fields have been side-by-side through this process, even to the point of watching tape together on receiver prospects in the draft.



The team will not hold Fields accountable for the lack of playmaking ability around him. Poles got this job because he looked George McCaskey in the eyes and told him the roster was dreck. No one has a more sober view of the depth chart and the communication between the new leadership and the young quarterback has been impeccable.

Also, this belief that a quarterback requires a stacked roster around him in year two to improve is utter nonsense. Josh Allen’s second-year receivers were John Brown and Cole Beasley. Deshaun Watson’s second receiver in his second year totaled 32 catches. Russell Wilson’s top pass catcher in his sophomore season had 64 catches. Fields is going into this season with a new coaching staff building an offense specifically for him, a talented run game and a 1,000-yard receiver he loves. If he can’t improve in that context, fair questions should be asked.

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The Approach.

If Poles’ board had potential starters at wideout and along the offensive line at the top of the second round, those would have been his selections. But it didn’t. And with secondary being the second-worst position group on the roster, why wouldn’t he hesitate to fortify that unit? As Poles himself stated, “There were two good starting-level defensive players, and I would have made a huge mistake for this organization to say, ‘Let’s leave them there’.”

The Bears believe the best way to “develop” Fields is to take pressure off of him, not artificially inflate the wide receiver room with day two maybes. Selecting Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker (the latter described to me by the aforementioned scout as a “top 35 talent” in this draft) is about establishing a structure for the difficult season to come. The Bears want to run the ball effectively and play solid defense. If they do those two things, they will not have to ask their quarterback – now in his third offensive system in three years – to drop back and fling it 40 times a week.

If the Bears didn’t address their secondary, especially after trading Khalil Mack, the team was looking at fielding an unprofessional group at the backend of their defense. If they did that, they would be chasing every game. Is there a worse possible scenario for a young QB?

The selection of Velus Jones Jr. in the third round also plays to this approach. “Deebo light” might seem like a grandiose designation, with Samuel coming off a brilliant 2021 campaign, but it’s easy to forget that the Niners receiver was more of a prolific gadget player in his first two seasons. Jones’ speed will give the Bears a dynamic they have sorely lacked in the Pace years, a player capable of taking a quick slant or bubble screen to the house at any moment. And it’s also difficult understand how Bears fans – OF ALL FANS – don’t understand the potential viability of drafting college football’s most electric return man.

Jones is a chess piece for an organization whose offensive game strategy hasn’t ascended beyond Connect Four in the modern era.



If Gordon is good, this is a good draft.

If Gordon and Brisker are both good, this is a great draft.

If Gordon and Brisker are both good, and Jones becomes a serious contributor, Poles has planted his flag in Chicago.

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The Fields Thing, or Twitter is Bad. 

Late Saturday afternoon I met a Bears fan in my Queens, NY local, The Copper Kettle. We talked about the draft for a good half hour.  (The draft was inconceivably still going.) The conversation was calm. It was balanced. His take was simple: “hopefully these guys are good”. He didn’t bemoan the second and third-tier receivers the team passed on. He didn’t scream about process.

He’s also not on Twitter.

There are only 38 million daily users of Twitter in the United States. There are roughly 260 million adults in the United States. So that means less than 15% of American adults are actually on the platform. Even if we give that number a slight bump for sports, one of Twitter’s primary patron bases, it’s a fact that Twitter represents a tiny percentage of any sports organization’s fans, the very definition of a vocal minority.

And Bears fans are a particularly emotional bunch on the platform. One needs only to search “Justin Fields” to see hundreds upon hundreds of fans defending Fields against any and all criticism from other fans. They treat Fields like he’s their child and can do no wrong. They 100% believe in the young quarterback and want the Bears to surround him with stars so his production will immediately increase, and they can win these mindless Twitter debates. (These are the types who like to post videos of their reactions to the Bears taking Fields in 2021 – something I find exceedingly odd when the poster is north of, say, 14 years old.)

The truth is, while the Bears are also fully committed to Fields, Poles needs to build a roster that not only makes the QB’s job easier, but a roster that is ready to win should the team have to find a new QB in a few years.

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2023.

Poles was not hired to develop Justin Fields. It will be a focus of his work, but it is not the preoccupation. Poles was hired to build a roster capable of contending for titles year-in and year-out and he fully understands that 2022 is not a contending season. Every decision he has made to this point shows where his focus lies: 2023. That’s where he’ll find a full slate of draft picks. That’s where he’ll find an exorbitant amount of cap space. And that’s where he’ll have answers to some of the questions currently floating around Lake Forest, i.e., where is Teven Jenkins going to play along this offensive line and is Trevis Gipson capable of being a consistent pass rusher in the league?

If this draft was successful, the Bears will approach next off-season as deliberately as any in recent memory. If Fields takes the steps the organization expects him to take in 2022, everything will be centered around improving their passing game in 2023. (Think Buffalo’s acquisition of Stefon Diggs in 2020, or the Dolphins grabbing Tyreek Hill this off-season.) With teams now willingly dumping their frontline receivers to avoid big contracts, a veteran move at the position could be possible. If there’s nothing on the trade market, the Bears will use their inevitable top-15 pick at the position. (Next year, my college football watching will plentiful and singularly focused on these fellas at the wide receiver position.)

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Now, We Wait.

Drafts are scratch-off lottery tickets with slightly better success rates. And that rate dramatically decreases as the rounds progress. The likelihood that Poles’ Friday night selections will all be impactful professionals is not high. But there is no question that all three will be given the opportunity to make an impact. Gordon and Brisker are penciled in as day one starters and Jones will both be returning kicks and supplying speed to the offense. (Don’t be surprised to see Jones perform a Deebo-like function in the running game as well.) And with any luck, one or two of the myriad of day three selections will also find their way into prominent roles on the 2022 club, including punter Trenton Gill.

Poles made his statement this weekend. He will not have his hand forced by those desperate to see Fields take “the leap” immediately. He’s going to be patient, both with his quarterback and his roster-building process. And he’s willing to suffer the slings and arrows of 2022 for success in 2023 and beyond.

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