Ryan Poles knew his work was cut out for him when he accepted the Chicago Bears general manager position last offseason, as he inherited a very dire situation. He knew the fort would have to get torn down to build a castle, and he began doing just that as soon as he took the job. While not all of his decisions have worked out in the Bears’ favor, he deserves significant credit for turning around the roster in short order.
As crazy as it sounds, the Bears may only be a few pieces away from fielding a team poised to make some noise in the postseason. It becomes evident how far they have come when you compare their current roster with the team they fielded a year ago, as they raised the level of competition across the board.
It will take some time before we can accurately judge his first season at the helm, but we’ve also advanced past knee-jerk reaction territory for each of the major decisions he made in year one. How did he fare in his first season on the job?
Trading Khalil Mack for a 2nd and 6th-Round Pick
Very few general managers would have had the courage to trade away a six-time Pro Bowler within three months of becoming the general manager for a franchise. However, Poles believed draft compensation was worth more than a 31-year-old Khalil Mack.
Mack may have been selected to his seventh Pro Bowl last season, but that honor was based more on his status than his play on the field. He faded down the stretch and only had two sacks in the Chargers’ final nine games after recording six in the first six contests (including three in Week One).
Meanwhile, the Bears added a potential tone-setter to the secondary in Jaquan Brisker with the second-round (pick 48) selection they received. They also traded the sixth-rounder back to the Chargers for two more seventh-round picks last year, which they used to select Trenton Gill and Elijah Hicks, who both made their presence felt on special teams in year one.
The Chargers’ decision to take on the rest of Mack’s contract was one of the most significant aspects of the trade. He is under contract through 2024, and his cap hit will be north of $27 million for each of the next two seasons. The Bears may still have ample spending money (and a glaring need at the defensive end), but even they can’t justify paying an aging pass-rusher that kind of money.
There were rumblings that the Chargers could be looking to move on from Mack in an attempt to create cap space this offseason, which further indicates that the Bears got the better end of the deal. While the move hurt when it got announced, it is hard to argue against it being the right call a year later. Brisker can tip the scale in the Bears’ favor even more if he can develop into a linchpin on the Bears’ defense.
Attempting to Sign Ryan Bates to a 4-year, $17M Contract
The Bears desperately needed to improve their offensive line last offseason, but Braxton Jones, whom the team selected in the fifth round, was the only new addition who will hold a starting position on the line going forward. However, they also tried to sign unrestricted free agent Ryan Bates to a four-year, $17 million deal, but Buffalo viewed him as an ascending player and matched the offer sheet.
The Bills might have let Bates walk if they had a chance to do this one over, as he was underwhelming in his first season as a full-time starter. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 61.5, which ranked 41st in the league. He may get paid like a low-end starter, but O’Cyrus Torrence, whom the team selected in the second round, could grab his starting spot as early as week one if he makes a good impression in camp.
All five of the Bears’ projected starters are better players than Bates. He is young and can still get better, but he is nothing more than a quality backup who will be playing starter snaps right now. They got pretty lucky that Buffalo matched their offer since his contract would have made it difficult for the Bears to keep him on the sidelines.
Trading Roquan Smith for a 2nd and 5th-Round Pick
Khalil Mack wasn’t the only star defensive player that Poles decided to move on from in his first year on the job, as he also traded Roquan Smith to the Ravens for a second and fifth-round pick ahead of the trade deadline.
Trading Smith was a move that appeared likely in the offseason after he voiced his concerns with the front office over contract negotiations. Still, the focus had seemingly shifted to on-field play once the season began. Nevertheless, Poles didn’t feel confident that the two sides would ever see eye-to-eye, so he struck while the iron was hot and got something for him while he still could.
Once he arrived in Baltimore, Smith promptly signed a five-year, $100 million contract that made him the highest-paid linebacker in league history. The off-the-ball ‘backer continued his high level of play with his new team (and finally began to receive appropriate recognition for it), but it is not hard to see where Poles was coming from.
Many believed the move said a lot about how the Bears brass viewed the off-the-ball linebacker position, but that notion was proven incorrect when Chicago signed Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards to multi-year deals on the first day of free agency. The combined amount for both their contracts was only $4 million more per year than Smith’s pact, which really puts the move into perspective.
While the free agent acquisitions are definitely nice, the trade will ultimately come down to how Gervon Dexter Sr., who the team selected with the second-round pick they received, and Noah Sewell, who they picked in the fifth-round, develop on the defensive side of the ball.
Trading a 2nd-Round Selection for Chase Claypool
It appeared the Bears were packing it in once they traded Smith to Baltimore, but then they gave up a second-round pick to land Chase Claypool the very next day, and it became CLEAR they were ready to COMPETE. Well, that might not have worked out (Claypool has yet to win a game in Chicago), but this was another move that seemed logical at the time.
The Bears receiving corps featured players that had no business catching passes from Justin Fields, and the addition of Claypool was the first move that showed they were committed to building around their young quarterback. Trading a second-round pick for his services may have been rich, but that was the going price for a 24-year-old pass-catcher with two 800-yard seasons under his belt.
It would be an understatement to call his first (half) season with the team disappointing. Claypool failed to reach the end zone and finished with only 140 yards over the final seven contests. There is still optimism that he can break out in the second season in Luke Getsy’s offense, especially with the added motivation of being in a contract year. Still, he will have to make a much greater impact this season to justify the move.
One thing you can say about the move is that you would still probably rather have Claypool than any of the receivers on the board at pick 32. Likewise, he was also better than any pass-catchers who found a new home via free agency this offseason. With Claypool in tow, the Bears could boast one of the league’s most potent three-receiver sets.
All things considered, they would probably do things differently if given a mulligan. There might not have been any blue-chip receiver prospects on the board at pick 32, but several players would still have vastly improved the roster. With that said, they would have needed to add a proven third receiver and their options there were obviously limited.