The training montage was a staple of my youth. Rocky. Chariots of Fire. Empire Strikes Back. Even Karate Kid. The list goes on, but the theme remains. In order to get better, you have to grind. You have to work. What is true for individual competitors is also true for teams. After being subjected to quick fix solutions and bad decision-making for roughly a decade, the Chicago Bears are desperately in need of a training montage.
Unfortunately, heading into the first year of his run with the Bears, Ryan Poles had less to work with than most first-time GMs. The number of roster holes he needed to fill compared to the money he had to spend was unfavorable, and he was short on draft picks despite the draft being the normal way the NFL allows losing teams to build their way back to relevance. However, excuses aside, Poles had an offseason that was arguably too quiet.
Byron Pringle, Lucas Patrick, and Al-Quadin Muhmmad might all be fine signings in their own way, but they speak more of quiet roster churn than the steps necessary to overhaul an 11-loss team. The argument could be made that letting Allen Robinson leave and trading Khalil Mack for the pick that became Jaquan Brisker were the two biggest moves Poles made, and that’s more “hardly working” than “working hard.”
However, with the Bears claiming six players off the waiver wire, the most of any team in 2022, a strategy is clearly shaping up for Poles. Tentatively, it’s a strategy that I like. Functionally, Poles is trying to use the waiver wire to sneak ahead by half of a draft class. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear Bill Conti starting to play in the background, or at least Joe Esposito.
The Leatherwood Gamble Makes Sense
Leave aside that Alex Leatherwood was certainly overdrafted at #17 overall last year. He carried a second-round grade on him from a number of boards, and he hasn’t exactly defied expectations positively. He was bad. Don’t trust Pro Football Focus’s opinion on it. Don’t rely on the fact that Josh McDaniels cut him after a single offseason. Just watch him play last year. He was unimpressive on his best days. He did nothing to establish that he deserved to be a starter in the NFL, and he legitimately gave critics a host of reasons to call him a bust.
On the other hand, Kent Lee Platte reported at the time he was drafted that Leatherwood carried a RAS score of 9.86, 17th out of 1109 of possible offensive tackles from 1987-2021, and Getsy runs a scheme that works best with athletic offensive linemen. As a move to shore up the offensive line right now, Leatherwood is a waste of $6million. As a move to build the trenches moving forward, Leatherwood is a highly talented player secured for under $2million per year over the next three years, making him cheaper than departed punter Pat O’Donnell and only slightly more expensive than Alex Bars.
In an offseason dedicated to reshaping the offensive line, Leatherwood serves as an insurance policy for Teven Jenkins’ back and as a potential building block for future offensive line depth. Most importantly, Poles secured a player with considerable upside on a price-controlled contract without spending draft capital. So long as the coaching staff believes that Leatherwood will be at least one of the seven or eight best offensive linemen on the team, then this Poles has used Chicago’s waiver wire position and the circumstances surrounding the Raiders front office to sneak out a free Day 2 pick essentially.
Experience for Hire
Armon Watts and Trevon Wesco were both drafted in 2019 and both have clearly failed to catch on. Armon Watts was considered a 5th or 6th-round prospect (he went in the 6th) who had good talent with the caveat that he lacked game experience and was going to need coaching and playing time in order to develop. Since that time, he has recorded nearly 1200 professional snaps.
Meanwhile, Trevon Wesco was thought to be a talented run-blocking tight end/fullback who would need more reps to develop as a pass-catcher. He was perhaps a little over-drafted (he went in the fourth round and carried an average fifth-round grade), but again it was his lack of experience that was considered an obstacle. 600 snaps later, the Jets seem to have gone to the trouble of developing him.
In the case of both players, they were worth a draft pick but not worth a roster spot. Neither was drafted for the coach or by the front office that made the decision to cut them, and both were known to be prospects who would need time to be ready. Both have now had that time, and that extra seasoning has not cost the Bears themselves a penny or a game snap. Even if each is considered a coin flip, each represents such a minimal investment that it’s worth flipping the coin.
Each of the remaining players (Jonathan, Weatherford, and Blackwell) could also turn into meaningful contributors under the right circumstances. Each has reasons that they might work, and each also has reasons that they were UDFAs who then got waived by the teams that initially took a chance on them. As indicators of what Ryan Poles is up to, then suggest very little except the sort of general churn that is to be expected every offseason.
However, what makes these moves interesting is that they come alongside the three other moves. Bringing in six new players onto the 53-man roster says a lot about what Ryan Poles thinks of the personnel he inherited, and it also shows that he is taking both large and small steps to make the team better.
Most importantly, Poles is not relying on a single big gesture to save the team, he is not trying to fix everything in one offseason, and he is not gambling the future in order to get ahead now. He’s grinding. He’s running on the beach and painting the fence and taking a dozen actions that will hopefully lead to a stronger team in the long run.
Solving Different Problems
Many fans will correctly point out that none of these moves are likely to help Justin Fields in 2022. If Alex Leatherwood needs to start for a considerable amount of time in 2022, something will likely have gone horribly wrong. If Trevon Wesco takes the place of Cole Kmet this year, then multiple teams have seriously underestimated him. That doesn’t matter. The problems facing the 2022 Chicago Bears are not the only problems that Ryan Poles has to solve. He has to begin backfilling the massive lack of talent on the roster caused by the previous two front offices. Perhaps most importantly, he can’t afford to lose track of the fact that an extra win or two in 2022 is not as important as laying the foundation for future success.
The money spent on these waiver selections is minor compared to what has already been invested in this year, and it has been far too long since a Chicago front office has been able to understand that moves need to be made for both the present and the future. Chicago seems to have a GM who appreciates the grind. I truly hope it pays off.