Last year, it made sense. Maybe even more than making sense, it was the prudent decision. Ryan Poles took over the Chicago Bears in 2022, traded Khalil Mack, and signed for the status of worst team in the division. He understood how far the roster he inherited was from competing with the league’s best, and more importantly, he acknowledged how long it might take to achieve that all-important status.
He also understood the three other teams in the NFC North believed they were capable of playing postseason football last season. The Packers sold out to a quarterback they no longer wanted. The Vikings had an expensive, if overrated, roster. The Lions, fresh off a starring turn on Home Box Office, were the preseason media darling. He couldn’t come right out and say, “We’re going to let them run their race and do our own thing,” but that’s exactly what was communicated inside the Halls of Halas. The Bears needed to lose in 2022. And lose a lot. Hang the banner. Mission accomplished.
A year later, circumstances are quite different.
The Packers won’t have Rodgers anymore. Or at least, we don’t think they will. That makes them a complete mystery. The Vikings were the softest 13-win team in league history; fully exposed in January when they decided to lay down at home and make Daniel Jones exceedingly rich. (Has Jones sent a thank you note to Ed Donatell yet? If he does, he should put ten grand in the envelope.) And the Lions…well, they’re the Lions. That city and those fans deserve a winner but until we see it on the field, how can we be confident the team will deliver them such a thing?
The NFC North can be won by ANY of its four teams and the odds reflect that. The Lions are +140. Vikings are +250. Bears +350. Packers +500. That’s Vegas throwing up a big old shrug emoji and saying, “Check back in with us October 1st.”
The truth is if Justin Fields stays healthy, the Bears have a good chance to win the NFC North because if Justin Fields stays healthy, the Bears have the most electric quarterback in the division. Does he have the big game experience of Jared Goff? No. Does he currently have the pocket accuracy of Kirk Cousins? No. But neither of those quarterbacks gives the opposing defensive coordinator midweek nightmares. Goff and Cousin can do the things they can do but preparing for those things isn’t complicated. Pressure them, beat them. Preparing for Fields is like preparing for a hurricane. You can knock off every item on your checklist but sometimes Mother Nature just decides to move your house a few hundred yards.
Poles has shown to be a man of conviction and he won’t be shifted from that conviction by need. It is a bold approach, requiring patience and thickness because the criticism is coming. He could have signed Mike McGlinchey to more money than Sean Payton offered but he didn’t think McGlinchey was worth that much money. He could have made Dre’mont Jones one of the most highly paid interior DL in the league, but he didn’t value him to that extent. You can criticize these non-moves and those criticisms are fair. McGlinchey and Jones are not All Pro type players, but they’d be significant upgrades here and they are not here for one reason: Poles didn’t want them here. Poles had an opportunity to definitively improve weaknesses on the roster and chose not to. Expectations for 2023 are lower, as of right now, because of that.
But let’s not pretend he hasn’t dramatically improved this club in 2023. He stole D.J. Moore from the Panthers, adding the best “available” wide receiver of the off-season. He’s built a top linebacking corps, adding talents to improve both last year’s horrible run defense and their coverage ability over the middle. And he HAS made moves to improve both lines, even if those lines still have noticeable holes, because Nate Davis and DeMarcus Walker are good football players.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the Bears were the worst team in the sport in 2022. It is easy to forget that because they were so damn fun to watch when Fields was rolling in the second half of the campaign. Teams don’t go from the first pick in the draft to the last game of the season. But that doesn’t mean they can’t go from first pick in the draft to meaningful football in December. Hell, we only have to go back as far as last season for evidence.
What Poles does in April will tell us a lot about how he views the coming season, and the club’s first-round selection will be the microcosm. If Poles trades back a time or two, it tells us he’s still focused squarely on the long term, on acquiring more picks, and he’s not concerned with the pressing needs of the current roster configuration. If he sticks at nine and bypasses the tackle position, it tells us Poles will stubbornly stick to his convictions regardless of what those outside the organization might think. If, however, Poles uses his first few picks to target, like a Marine sniper, areas of specific need, then it’s fair to say he sees the 2023 season as one the Bears can significantly impact. If he uses the first three or four picks in the trenches, it could be Poles’ way of saying, “We’re fortifying the flaws and making our move.”
And he should. The NFL is a year-to-year league and next year both the NFC North, and the NFC as a whole, are vulnerable. Punting 2022 made sense. Punting 2023 does not. The Eagles lost half their defense. The Niners might open the season with Sam Darnold at quarterback. A good month of April can make the Bears feisty this coming season. A great month of April can make them one of the better teams in the conference.
There will still be some low-level free agency moves made. But those are one-year, one-offs. If we think of the GM as the architect of an NFL house, the draft picks are the blueprints. The picks are the plans; how he values them and how he uses them tell us how he envisions the finished product. At the end of the month, we’ll get a good look at Ryan Poles’ plans for 2023.