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Chicago’s 2023 Draft Class: A Skeptic’s Response

Tempering cold analysis with a fan’s emotional reactions, one perpetual curmudgeon has thoughts on how Ryan Poles has done.

NFL: Chicago Bears Press Conference Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

I was not the world’s biggest fan of the 2022 Chicago Draft. I felt that even though Ryan Poles was operating under adverse conditions with the depleted capital he had, he was setting up Chicago for a rough season by focusing on defensive backs and a questionable special teamer. However, being disappointed in how Chicago approached the draft was nothing new for me, because I had not been a fan of the prior administration’s approach to drafting, either. I tend to study drafting and team-building rather analytically, and so the “gut feelings” and “clouds of players” embraced by the last Ryan P. were a little uncomfortable (and the results were even less appealing).

Thus, I find myself pleasantly surprised that I have to acknowledge the 2023 Chicago Bears Draft Class with grudging respect. In fact, when taken as a whole, there seems to be a strong case to be made that Ryan Poles did Yeoman’s work with the resources available to him. I therefore want to consider the draft class in its entirety, including every resource he had available, including resources that were spent ahead of the last weekend in April. In doing so, I intend to be at least as much of a fan as an analyst, for a change.

No. 1: Poles Diversifies his Portfolio

In probably the single best first-round move made by a Chicago GM in more than a decade, Poles decided to break with recent tradition. Instead of putting all of his eggs in one basket, he distributed risk. While I know people debate how to score these things, I am simply using “Johnson value” with fairly generic future-pick discounts to assign the value invested in each part of this trade.

Darnell Wright, RT (43%): I really thought that getting wide receiver D.J. Moore was going to be my favorite part of Poles’ maneuvering with the first overall pick, and intellectually it still is. Emotionally? This is my favorite part. This is the first time in my memory the Bears have spent their first pick to get one of my favorite players in the draft, and it fills a position of vital need. Wright has been on my radar since I scouted Will Anderson for Chicago and wanted to know exactly what was up with the OT who stymied him for a full game. One of my favorite parts of the game is the clash of the trenches, and for the first time in far too long Chicago might have a true difference-maker on that front.

D.J. Moore, WR (29%): Although he’s not a draft pick, this is the “unassigned value” of the pick that would fall on Moore, and he was an essential part of the trade down. He’s an unquestionable #1 Wide Receiver, and he makes things easier on the rest of the receiving room. I always felt Mooney was a much better WR2 than WR1, and Moore lets him take on that role. Given how volatile wide receiver is as a position in the draft and how difficult it is to find a quality wide receiver in free agency, this was perhaps the smartest part of the trade Poles made.

Pick #61 (10%): The selection this pick will eventually be turned into is discussed later, but here I want to address the constant argument made that this should have been pick #39…really? It is extremely easy to hold firm on the internet when you get to write the script, insisting that the other team will blink. However, at some point there is a need to understand that human beings are involved in the discussions. Rationally, should Carolina have caved to Poles insisting on #39 vs #61 to get their quarterback? Sure. Humans aren’t always rational. I have no way of knowing if Fitterer would have blinked or if he would have taken D.J. Moore and his future picks and gone home. Would that be bad for Carolina? Sure. But it also would have been bad for Chicago. Poles made the wise move here and got a package to set up Chicago for its future instead of pushing so hard he lost the opportunity.

Future Capital (18%): There are still three picks in the future that will be a part of this year’s draft value, and the fact that Chicago doesn’t gain their value right now is why they carry discounted weight. However, they are still part of this year’s trade. They are a 2024 Round 1 Pick from the Panthers, a 2024 Round 4 Pick from the Eagles, and a 2025 Round 2 Pick from the Panthers. That’s another two years with the Bears having extra draft capital to either maneuver or find talent.

No. 32: Poles Swings and Misses

Chase Claypool, WR: I understand why Poles took a shot and I even think it was an okay idea, but it does not seem to have been the right play. Claypool appeared in seven games and started three. The median wide receiver taken in the second round contributes around 58 games and 33 starts, so he was never going to hit those numbers (which makes the trade a little more questionable already).

Worse, however, is that even if Claypool duplicates his best performance (2020) next year, he’s basically on track to give Chicago a total of 1,013 yards and 9 touchdowns over 23 games and 9 starts. That puts him behind the return on investment the Lions gained from Titus Young– taken 44th while turning in 26 games, 17 starts, 990 yards, and 10 TDs–but slightly ahead of what Stephen Hill gave the Jets when he was taken 43rd while turning in 23 games, 19 starts, 594 yards, and 4 TDs.

In all likelihood, a year from now the verdict is going to be that this just didn’t work out. For it to be otherwise would take an abrupt change in fortunes for the player in question.

No. 53: The Trade of Irreconcilable Differences, Part 1

Gervon Dexter, DT: When Ryan Pace drafted Roquan Smith at #8, I was part of a relatively vocal group of detractors who pointed out that even if Smith played lights out for Chicago (which he did), the selection would end up putting the Bears in a position where they either needed to pay a significant portion of their salary space for an off-the-ball linebacker or else they would lose their investment of a Top Ten pick to free agency. When Chicago shifted from the 3-4 to the 4-3 (and put Smith out of his best position), Poles was able to take the third option and cut the wire. The trade he pulled off worked out for both parties, getting Smith to a team where he was able to earn his first ever Pro Bowl and his first 1AP selection while also giving Chicago two picks with which to build the future. That part I like.

What I am less sure of is the player. Gervon Dexter is a physical specimen, which should not be surprising given the fact that Poles clearly goes after a certain type of athlete. He was rated highly on at least a few boards, and the Bears had the worst defense in the NFL in 2022 so an investment in the defensive line makes sense. Intellectually I have no complaints, even if emotionally I wish they would have gone with a Center or an Edge-rusher here.

No. 56: Poles Shows Aggression in the Face of Opportunity

Tyrique Stevenson, CB: Poles gave up 10% of his earned value from the trade out of #1 plus Chicago’s native pick from the fifth round (#136) in order to draft a corner. All of my research shows that after players on both sides of the trenches, corners is one of the positions where quality falls away fastest. Thus, while I have trouble supporting a trade-up in a draft full of cornerback talent, I have to admit that this move makes sense. It’s not what I would have done, but it’s also difficult to criticize except in the sense that “I don’t like it,” and that seems tenuous reasoning in the face of precedent.

It is also absolutely a strong move from a team-building perspective, because teams need three reliable corners (if not for) for modern defensive sets. Did Chicago have three? No, they did not.

No. 64: Poles Builds the Trenches

Zaach Pickens, DT: This is the first pick Poles actually made at Chicago’s “earned” position, and it was a player I had on the radar for much later. However, with the way the boards were falling and the way there can be runs on the positions, there was no reason for Chicago not to take the player they wanted when he was available. Does it make sense to double-dip at defensive tackle when they had just taken Dexter? Yes.

From 2011-2018, only 29% of all third-round picks ended up becoming reliable starters (with 40 or more starts across their first five seasons). For that matter, three of the eight players picked exactly at #64 did not even become reliable starters in their first five years. However, 44% of third-rounders ended up appearing in at least 60 total games across the same span. In other words, this is a breaking point in the draft where getting value of any kind is worth mentioning, and seldom has a defense in the league suffered from having fresher big dudes to play for a few snaps. I cannot form a reasonable argument against this move, even if it seems to me from the outside that Poles had better options.

No. 103: The Saints March Up and the Bears Den Down

Roschon Johnson, RB (#115): Did I want a Center here? Yes. Does Poles seem to agree with me that the Center position is a need? He apparently does not. However, if I am going to consistently say that running backs are replaceable in later rounds, then it would be really hypocritical of me to complain that Ryan Poles took a swing at a running back in a later round. In this case, he picked a player who has good vision and who offers solid blocking in the passing game. He is probably never going to churn out the same kind of production as his former teammate Bijan Robinson, but he was also available 97 picks later than Mr. Robinson, as well. This seems like a smart enough play.

Terrell Smith, CB (#165): The other half of this trade became another cornerback. I had not watched Terrell Smith at all prior to the Bears taking him, and anything I typed about this specific player would just be copied from another scouting report. However, turning one pick into two later on while still getting players who might contribute is a reasonable strategy. I am including it here because as far as I am concerned, these two picks together represent Poles’ investment of his original fourth-round pick. If I had to make a choice, though, I’d guess that Johnson will contribute more.

No. 133: Trading a “Playmaker” for “Playmaker”?

Tyler Scott, WR: When Robert Quinn was traded to Philadelphia for a late pick, the Bears arguably lost their top pass rusher. However, looking at what Quinn had accomplished in 2022 by that point for Chicago (1 sack and 3 quarterback hits) and what he offered the Eagles once traded (no starts, no sacks, and 2 quarterback hits), it’s easy to see why Poles took the chance to replace the 32-year-old with the another roll of the draft dice.

As for the player they picked, Tyler Scott is a former track star who has a chance to be a deep-ball threat. In that way, he will hopefully be a playmaker in the opposite direction. While Quinn was supposed to make life difficult on quarterbacks, Scott should be able to do the opposite for Justin Fields. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I am at least relieved that Poles did not rest at the position just because he had already spent capital on Chase Claypool and Velus Jones, jr.

No. 148: The Trade of Irreconcilable Differences, Part 2

Noah Sewell, LB: The 150th player on my composite board was drafted at 148! Honestly, I really hope the goal is to convert Sewell to an edge rusher, because that position seems to have been forgotten in this draft and Sewell managed 7.5 sacks in college (as well as 14 tackles for a loss in the last two seasons). The brother of Penei Sewell, he should at least add some spice and a talking point for two games a year when Chicago faces the Lions.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with trying to improve on Jack Sanborn and grow a linebacker out of a late pick. However, at some point the question has to be whether or not stacking players deep in some roles while leaving the team shallow in other spots is a wise strategy for a team with so many needs.

No. 178: Sigh

Ryan Pace was so good at trading away future picks, he managed to get rid of a sixth-round pick that would be selected more than a year after both Pace was fired and the player he traded for (Jakeem Grant) was signed by another team. But that’s what happened here. I am fairly sure that this is the last pick of Chicago’s that Ryan Pace managed to trade away, however.

No. 218: Yeah, I don’t know

Travis Bell, DT: I have five Google Sheets with prospects from fifteen different draft boards for the 2023 draft and this guy isn’t on any of them. He might be good. He might be the steal of the draft. He might also be a guy who bounces from practice squad to practice squad for the next two years before becoming the most popular football coach in his hometown. I will say this–if any draft gets to the point where its success or failure hinges on 7th-round pick, it’s probably too late, anyway.

No. 258: Mrs. Poles…can you say something?

Kendall Williamson, S: Famously, Rick Spielman’s wife once told him that if he drafted another corner, he should just stay at the office and not come home. Ryan Poles has now made 21 picks in the actual draft and six of them have been at defensive back. I cannot argue that this makes sense, but I will say that Williamson looks good in what little I have been able to watch of him.

What Does it Mean?

Ultimately, the best measure of a general manager’s success is whether or not the team that he assembles wins football games. Fans are at least a year (or two) away from having the ability to make a reasonable assessment of the actual quality of these picks. Still, there seems to have been a consistent strategy at work, filling both needs and working at prioritizing those needs more or less where traditional positional value places them.

I have major questions over whether or not the next wave of free agency will adequately address what seems to me to be a limitation in the pass-rushing ability of this team. I am skeptical that the options at Center are adequate to the needs of the team. However, Poles used the resources available to him in the 2023 Draft to advance the team in a way that shows a distribution of risk, and understanding of opportunity, and a willingness to accept hard choices now in order to secure the long-term flexibility of the team. At that, I leave the 2023 draft relieved and even optimistic. Enough. I guess.