The 2023 NFL Draft has come and gone. For as much work that goes into the process and the excruciating wait until the final weekend in April, the draft weekend always flies by in the blink of an eye. For the Chicago Bears, this was just the second time in five years that they made a first-round selection. This was also their second draft class in a row in which they drafted double-digit players.
Philosophies have changed, and for that, Bears fans should be grateful. With general manager Ryan Poles and this new regime putting more value into the draft, the path to a sustainable roster feels more realistic than it did for the majority of the Ryan Pace era. With the bulk of the acquisition period done for the off-season, we’ll dive into what this off-season has been and where it still has time to go in a special edition of 10 Bears Thoughts.
1. Ryan Poles has a type, and he made that abundantly clear this weekend.
Sometimes it can be hard to find trends when looking at an NFL team’s tendencies during the draft process. Especially for newer regimes like the one in Chicago. With that being said, Poles and his group have drawn a clear line in the sand when it comes to their evaluations. These prospects must be athletic, show good character (both on and off the field), and most top picks will be Top 30 visits during the pre-draft process.
Of the ten players that the Bears drafted this past weekend, they all fell into the “elite” RAS category. The only other team that fell into that category during the draft? The Indianapolis Colts. The same team that’s headed up by Chris Ballard, who happened to spend a good amount of time with Poles in Kansas City. As time goes on, the more similar both general managers’ approaches look.
Only time will tell how this approach works out for Poles, but any time information on their team evaluations has been leaked/revealed, athletic scores have been talked about quite a bit. On the top of their list last year were Justin Fields, Velus Jones Jr., and Chase Claypool, with scores over 9. When mocking players in future drafts (and free agency), RAS scores and Top 30 visits should play a big part.
2. The Bears had a plan and executed it well even when the board didn’t fall their way at certain positions.
Heading into draft weekend, the Bears’ top needs were clear. Right tackle, defensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback, and running back. They quickly took care of right tackle on Day 1 with the selection of right tackle Darnell Wright. On Day 2, they addressed both defensive tackle spots and cornerback. Early into Day 3, they handled depth at both running back and receiver. All in all, you could argue the board broke very well in most ways.
In most ways... Except for edge rusher. This was a deep class that had plenty of top-end talent and depth. The only issue? By the time the Bears made their selection in the second round at No. 53, the top 11 edge rushers were already off the board. Seven of them went in the first round. Some might consider that a tough break for an edge rusher-needy team like the Bears but Poles did not panic.
Instead, he selected Gervon Dexter Sr. at No. 53, traded up a few picks for Tyrique Stevenson at No. 57, and held steady at No. 64 for Zacch Pickens. Poles was still able to knock out four needs with four picks without reaching or trading future capital for an edge rusher. To me, that’s the sign of a good general manager. The draft is all about projecting for the long term, and sometimes things don’t break your way. How many times did we see former general manager Ryan Pace trade the farm to move up and select a player at a position of need simply because he had “conviction”? It happened often, and while it felt good in the moment, those picks rarely worked out and always hurt them in future years.
Simply put, this rebuild was always going to require patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are any successful NFL franchises. It’s easy to lose focus for the long-term in the moment, but for the most part, Poles has kept his view for the long-term as his primary focus.
3. I’m still shocked that the Bears were able to land running back Roschon Johnson and wide receiver Tyler Scott in the fourth round.
For the most part, I’d say the Bears did a quality job of filling needs and meeting generalized value pools regarding their first four picks. There were no tremendous values when looking at Arif Hasan’s Industry Consensus Board, but all fell within a reasonable pick range.
Then Day 3 came around, and Poles found tremendous value on his first four picks. The first two picks of that day, being the most impressive with Johnson and Scott. Both players were projected Day 2 players, and both found their way into Day 3. Projecting running backs can be tough because of fit and preference ranges for each team. Despite that, finding Johnson sitting on the board at No. 115 (after a sizeable trade-down) was a nice surprise.
Johnson projects well in this offense and should immediately come in and challenge for playing time in the team’s rotation. Johnson is capable in the passing game, both as a blocker and a pass catcher. He’s a violent runner with a quality athletic profile. Most importantly, he had less than 400 rushes at Texas, which makes him one of the few low-mileage runners that can be found in each draft. Coming in at 97th overall on the consensus board, the Bears got quite the value with their opening pick in the fourth round, despite the trade down.
Scott is the pick that still shocks me, though. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had the former Cincinnati product as a second-round talent and his seventh receiver overall. Funny enough, Scott’s primary NFL comp was Darnell Mooney. Scott’s pure track speed and ability for the big play is what makes him so attractive. He’s a good route runner that understands the nuances of beating good defensive backs. He was ranked 74th overall on the consensus board, and the Bears got him 59 slots below that at No. 133. In the short-term, Scott likely slots in as the team’s fourth receiver, but don’t be surprised to see him quickly carve out a role, at least as a deep threat.
All in all, Poles landed four players on Day 3 that ranked considerably higher than their draft position, but these two are players that should immediately contribute in valuable roles for the 2023 season.
4. Passing on Jalen Carter proved a larger point that character still matters very much to this team, especially with a young locker room.
Leading up to draft night, there were rumors that the Bears would be Carter’s “floor” at No. 9 overall. Sure enough, the former Georgia Bulldog slid to Chicago’s pick, and instead of taking him, they traded down one spot with the Philadelphia Eagles, who ultimately took him. Count me as one of the many that were surprised by this, especially considering the pre-draft talk.
So, what does this all mean? It means that the Bears could ultimately live to regret their decision to pass on a supposed “generational talent.” It also means that regardless of how talented Carter might be, Poles’ value of character (both on and off the field) is much higher and more complex than simply taking the best player on the board.
When asked about Carter following the first round, Poles dodged the question directly but did note character being something they value highly. He said the same thing pre-draft when asked about the potential of someone like Carter being there for the Bears.
Here’s what we know. The Bears did plenty of pre-draft research on the 21-year-old. They spoke with him at the combine. They attended his Pro Day. They even brought him in for one of the 30 pre-draft visits to Halas Hall. The homework was done, and in the end, they weren’t comfortable placing him in a young locker room. We can all have our feelings on whether that was ultimately the right decision, but it’s worth locking away in your mind for future off-seasons.
5. Leading the league in cap space has advantages, especially post-draft. Expect the Bears to be active in filling a few roster spots when the smoke clears.
Considering just three teams currently have over $15 million in functional cap space, the market appears to be about as dull as a team like the Bears could hope for. Free agent deals have come in cheaper and cheaper as the off-season has pressed on. That could mean a relatively affordable deal for any of these five names. According to Over The Cap, the Bears lead the league in “effective” cap space at $30.713 million in space. That accounts for getting their current draft class under contract but does not account for any pre or post-Week 1 moves (that should cost in the neighborhood of $8-10 million). That’s currently over $11.5 million more than the Carolina Panthers (who currently rank second).
Looking at the current free agent market, a few interesting names could make sense for the Bears at edge rusher.
- Leonard Floyd
- Yannick Ngakoue
- Jadeveon Clowney
- Frank Clark
- Markus Golden
If I had to guess, they could probably land one of the top names for $7 million or less on a one-year deal. They could also choose to dabble in the trade market. It has been rumored that the Washington Commanders could be shopping one of Chase Young or Montez Sweat. Young would be cheaper but also comes with more medical concerns. Carl Lawson is another name that could make some sense as a post-draft cut or cheap trade target if the New York Jets decide to cut costs after the Aaron Rodgers trade became official.
On a lesser note, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chicago decides to bring one of their free agents back. Defensive back DeAndre Houston-Carson still fills a depth need and is a crucial special teams leader with a valuable veteran presence. Again, they have plenty of money to do whatever they need, including extensions.
6. While money can fill some of the Bears’ remaining needs, this off-season has proven (at least on paper) that this will not be a quick fix, nor should it be.
Let’s face it, Chicago is in the midst of an extensive rebuild. Their primary saving grace would come in the form of Justin Fields. That, of course, is assuming that he ends up being the quarterback fans and this organization are hoping him to be. If the Bears have their quarterback of the future, things can and should could together quicker than expected.
With that in mind, the rest of this roster was about as bad as it gets. Hence landing the No. 1 overall pick back in January. Sure, they lost a lot of close games, but when you’re stacking their “blue chip” talent against other teams, it can be a bleak task. At this point, it’s all about stacking young talent. Sustainable success is the hardest thing to maintain (as seen back in 2018-2020), but if done properly, it can pay off in the long term.
The Bears could have opted for short-term fixes in free agency. They had plenty of money and overall resources to do so. Yet, Poles has maintained discipline, even if we’ve all disagreed with their player evaluations at certain points. If all goes well, Fields will establish himself as a franchise quarterback. The offense will find itself in the Top 15, and the defense will have key contributors arise from their current collection of young but unproven talent.
7. It’s quite remarkable to see the transformation that the Bears’ offensive skill positions have made in just two off-seasons.
Speaking of the offensive goal being Top 15 in 2023, let’s just take a minute to appreciate their personnel transformation over the past 12 months or so. In that time, they’ve added pass catchers D.J. Moore, Chase Claypool, Robert Tonyan, and Tyler Scott. They’ve added three starting offensive linemen with Braxton Jones, Nate Davis, and Darnell Wright. They’ve completely reworked their running back room with D’Onta Foreman and Roschon Johnson for a fraction of the price that they would have had to pay David Montgomery.
The pieces are there, and the excuses are gone. The offense must perform. Part of that is on Fields, but a bigger portion will be on offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and his offensive coaching staff. For a stretch last year, the Bears were the highest-scoring offense in the league last year with Fields running for his life and the league’s worst combination of offensive linemen and skill position players.
The time is now for this offense. Health will play a key role in maximizing their potential, but the pieces are finally there. Now we get to see how it all plays out.
8. I’m still not overly confident that the Bears will be vastly improved in the trenches, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If I were running the Bears, I would have been more aggressive in free agency on both sides of the line, especially at defensive tackle. I think Wright is much more likely to work out long-term than signing someone like Mike McGlinchey. We’ll see how that feeling progresses over the next few years.
That said, the Bears made a clear point of attacking the trenches. Poles spent a healthy free agent contract on both Davis and defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker. They also spent three of their first four picks in the trenches with Wright, Dexter Sr., and Pickens. Despite that, I’m still not overly confident that either unit will rank in the Top 15 at the end of 2023. I wish that Poles had spent some resources at center, and I’m not convinced the Dexter Sr. or Pickens will produce at a high level in their rookie years.
Many things have changed in the game of football over the decades, but one thing has continued to hold. Teams that are strong in the trenches are usually successful on a year-to-year basis. I wouldn’t rule out another impactful move on the defensive line, but 2023 will be a “tryout” year for many of these guys to figure out who can be long-term starting fixtures moving forward.
9. It appears Poles made another statement this weekend. He’s truly comfortable with the team’s current center situation.
Shortly after the start of free agency, Poles met with the media to cover his big free-agent signings in the off-season. During his press conference, he mentioned Cody Whitehair as the likely start center and claimed he felt comfortable with that decision. At the time, many, including myself, felt that was more lip service than truth. Two months later, it appears that he was telling the truth.
Chicago had multiple opportunities to sign better veterans in free agency and did not. They had multiple opportunities to draft one of the few highly-rated centers this past weekend and did not do so. That tells me they are truly comfortable with Whitehair (and maybe Lucas Patrick) moving into training camp. Of course, one injury can drastically change that outlook, but it’s an interesting choice considering both players’ health history over the past few seasons. The biggest question now becomes, who starts at right guard? The early word appears to have Davis staying at his natural spot. The issue? That would have Teven Jenkins sliding to a new spot for the third time in his three NFL seasons.
Depth is still a question for this group, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another veteran spot-starter added down the line, but for now, this appears to be the group they are rolling into training camp with.
10. Buckle up, mini-camp (and OTAs) are upon us. This will be a small glimpse into what this roster can be heading into Training Camp at the end of July.
To cap off an exciting draft weekend, we’ll dive into a few key dates over the next five-to-six weeks before a seven week lull into training camp. The Bears will kick off their rookie mini-camp this weekend, which will then be followed by a mixture of voluntary OTAs and a mandatory veteran mini-camp into mid-June. Somewhere in that mix, we’ll get the official NFL schedule release. Enjoy this next month and a half because, after that, the dead period of silence can feel like an eternity.
May 5-6: Rookie Mini-Camp
May 11: Speculated NFL Schedule Release Date (Should become official later this week)
May 13: Bear Care Gala (At Soldier Field)
May 22, 23, 25, 30, and 31: Voluntary OTAs
June 1, 5, 6, 7, 8: Voluntary OTAs
June 13-15: Mandatory Mini-Camp