When Ryan Poles first walked into Halas Hall as general manager last year, he surveyed the wreckage of an organization that had compromised its future to go 6-11 and stumble into a third-place finish in the NFC North.
It was easy to see how much cleanup the Bears needed. Anyone could’ve seen that.
And there were some moves that pretty much any general manager would’ve made, such as letting high-priced veterans walk in free agency and offloading Khalil Mack and his massive contract for draft assets and financial flexibility.
But the non-obvious moves will be the ones that define Poles. That’s where he can show creativity, cleverness and clairvoyance — or a lack of those qualities. Those are the moves that swing his job security and legacy.
That includes big trades, such as bringing in Chase Claypool and Montez Sweat as well as dealing Roquan Smith. It includes his drafts, particularly the first three rounds, where he landed such building blocks as Darnell Wright and Kyler Gordon but also took Velus Jones. And it includes free-agent signings such as Tremaine Edmunds and Lucas Patrick.
There’s good and bad for him in all of those areas.
But the defining decision of Poles’ tenure will be trading out of the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. Whether he builds the Bears into a dynasty or drives them into disaster, that decision undoubtedly will prove to be the point from which it all started.
Poles had arguably the most valuable resource a general manager can have, and he gambled by dealing it to the Panthers in a move down to
No. 9 that brought the Bears an extra 2024 first-rounder, an extra 2025 second-rounder and Carolina’s best player, wide receiver DJ Moore.
That Panthers pick next year could very well land at No. 1, and the Bears’ pick almost certainly will be in the top 10. The players Poles chooses in those spots will close the loop on his landmark trade, and he must emerge with a franchise quarterback.
That could be Justin Fields, which would allow Poles to address other big needs with those picks, but time is running short for Fields to prove he’s better than what he has shown the last 2½ seasons. If it’s not Fields, there are four quarterbacks projected as high first-round picks, led by USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
Poles’ next step is to fortify everything around his quarterback so he can thrive. He did part of that this year, and construction needs to be completed by the start of next season.
Every general manager is judged by his calls at quarterback and head coach. Poles will need quite a resurgence on both fronts.
The Bears took a questionable approach to replacing general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy after firing them on Jan. 10, 2022. They began coach interviews two days later with Doug Pederson and had interviewed five by the end of the weekend. They appeared to be down to three finalists — Matt Eberflus, Dan Quinn and Jim Caldwell — just as Poles came aboard.
That sounds like a backward process. Poles, however, was asked if chairman George McCaskey and the hiring committee made him choose from those three and said no. He was adamant that he was free to interview whomever he pleased and said of Eberflus, “I found him.”
So Eberflus is indisputably on his track record. And for as much as Poles clearly respects him, this hasn’t gone well.
Set aside that the Bears went 3-14 under his watch last season. They went into this season with a revamped roster and playoff ambitions, and Eberflus has them sitting at 3-7. Their postseason hopes were dashed by Week 5, and there has been a string of off-field fumbles.
That doesn’t automatically sink Poles. General managers usually get at least two swings at hiring the head coach. The test for him will be not only to evaluate Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy accurately, but to be objective about better options on the market. Poles says, as all general managers do, that he’s always looking for upgrades at every position. That must apply to the coaching staff, as well.
Poles has wanted to take a gradual approach to rebuilding the Bears, and there’s some prudence in that, but he doesn’t have limitless time to do it. Other teams have done it in two seasons, predominantly by getting it right at quarterback and head coach. Poles needs to have those problems solved going into Year 3.