Since the turn of the century there have been eight general managers who have kept their jobs after ending a season with the worst record in the league. Of those, San Diego’s A.J. Smith, Houston’s Rick Smith, Tampa Bay’s Jason Licht, Detroit’s Martin Mayhew and Jacksonville’s Trent Baalke have recovered to make the playoffs. In two of those cases — Licht and Baalke — the GM didn’t have final say on the roster, instead it was head coaches Lovie Smith and Urban Meyer calling the shots.
Another example could be Duke Tobin of the Bengals, though Cincinnati’s front office set up is unique and it’s unknown how much power he actually has.
More often than not, the decision maker who is responsible for constructing the worst team in the league is fired, either immediately or soon after.
The easiest way to climb out of the dumpster is by hitting on a quarterback. That, more than anything, is what has the Jaguars and Bengals in the playoffs. Hitting on Matthew Stafford kept Martin Mayhew employed for a few more years and AJ Smith was able to get creative, taking Eli Manning and swapping him for Philip Rivers. Time will tell if the Bears truly believe they have their quarterback, though they seem content – at the very least – with Justin Fields.
Rick Smith is the exception; he took defensive ends both times he had the first pick and neither worked out particularly well. He had a longer leash than most as the Texans didn’t make the playoffs until his sixth season in charge. You can bet Poles won’t get that much time.
Carolina’s Marty Hurney is also an exception, he hit on the quarterback but was still fired shortly after.
Poles is in a good spot to turn this roster around as long as he uses his resources wisely.
If he wants to use the first pick, a talent like Will Anderson Jr. would certainly warrant it. Given Matt Eberflus’ relationship with Anderson’s college coach, Nick Saban, the Bears will get some very good intel on the player. One thing Poles showed last year is that he isn’t going to trade back just to acquire more picks, instead valuing top tier talent.
There is also a world in which a college quarterback blows Poles away, something he suggested was possible, though unlikely. In that case, the Bears would be able to move Fields for some considerable assets.
If Poles wants to trade the pick, he should be able to get a decent haul, though some fans have gotten carried away with this. If Poles were to drop to second, he’d probably add a couple of day two picks — with at least one likely to be in 2024. Dropping to fifth might pick up an extra first round pick in 2024 and then some. The further they drop, the larger the return would be, but they’d also be missing out on premier talents.
The first pick has only been traded twice since 2000 and both times it worked out well for the trading team. The Tennessee Titans were able to get the 15th pick as well as a couple of second rounders and a first round pick the following year. They made some more moves, moving up for Jack Conklin and used one of the second-round picks on Derrick Henry.
Compared to most trades, San Diego didn’t get much when it went back to fifth and allowed Atlanta to select Mike Vick first overall. The Chargers only got one second and one third round pick in exchange, but they Chargers lucked out, getting Ladanian Tomlinson with the fifth pick and then Drew Brees in the second round.
Both of the GMs who traded the first overall picks were ultimately fired, though one of the GMs who traded for the first pick — LA’s Les Snead — went on to win a Super Bowl without the player he ultimately selected.
The Bears don’t need to trade back simply to fill holes. They have an estimated $50 million more than any other team to spend in free agency. The Bears should be able to sign several starters and maybe even a handful of true difference makers.
Ultimately, Poles will be judged on the talent he brings in. He can be given a pass for his first offseason on the job, but he can’t for his second. This has a chance to be a franchise-changing offseason for the Bears and it will be up to the GM to make it happen.