In January of 2022, I wrote a piece chronicling the state of the Chicago Bears. I pointed out that they had a 3-year win average across the league that tied them for 20th place. They then had the fewest picks in the 2022 draft with the 29th-most total draft value, the fewest players under active (not void) contract, and about the 20th-most money per roster opening in the league. However, new general manager Ryan Poles has since had two drafts and is well into his second offseason to address needs.
There is little point in recapping how the “tear down” portion of the rebuild has gone, because a team that finishes a season at the bottom of the league is pretty much torn down, but it is worth looking at where Poles has invested resources during his brief tenure.
The Teardown Trades
Ryan Poles was able to deal away three defensive players from the Pace administration in exchange for assets: Khalil Mack (2022 Round 2 and 2023 Round 6), Robert Quinn (2023 Round 4), and Roquan Smith (2023 Round 2 and 2023 Round 5). The 2023 Round 6 acquired for the Mack trade was later converted into a pair of 2022 Round 7 picks. In terms of Jimmy Johnson trade value, that is roughly 863 points, or almost the 19th pick in the draft. In terms of Stuart Chase expected value, that is roughly 25.7 points, or almost the 4th overall pick in the draft.
Although it is highly improbable that it was done intentionally, almost all of the selections made with the picks earned from these trades have gone to defensive players: Jaquan Brisker (Mack), Gervon Dexter (Smith), Noah Sewell (Smith), and Elijah Hicks (Mack). The only two exceptions are Tyler Scott (Quinn) and Trenton Gill (Mack).
Commentary: Again, I am in no way saying that there was or should have been an intent behind the selections made with these picks. I am, however, observing that these trades took resources earned from depleting the defense and largely replaced them with defensive players, barring less than 5% of the Johnson value of the picks and under 15% of the Stuart expected value. Yes, Poles stripped the defense bare. However, whether it was intentional or not, he then used the resources gained in that manner to bolster the defense with younger players on price-controlled contracts.
Teams constantly cycle players through free agency, but a small handful of moves are notable because they represent players leaving one team for another at a relatively high contract value. Rather than create my own threshold for moves that seem important, one simple measure is whether or not the move registers on the compensatory pick cancelation chart assembled by Over The Cap.
For 2022, four players left for contracts elsewhere that qualify on the chart–Allen Robinson, James Daniels, Bilal Nichols, and Andy Dalton. Robinson was a fan favorite in Chicago, but he was later shed by Los Angeles in part of a trade that only involved a swap of 7th-round picks and prompted one writer to say “Robinson was a huge bust for the Rams, one of the team’s worst free-agent signings in a long time.” However, there was not a high-priced receiver brought in to replace him, either.
Instead, Poles brought in Byron Pringle, Al-Quadin Muhmmad, Justin Jones, Nicholas Morrow, and Lucas Patrick. From a balance perspective, then, Poles let three major offensive players and one defensive player walk; by contrast he brought in two qualifying offensive players (a loss of one) and three qualifying defensive players (a net gain of two).
Then, in 2023, Poles let walk David Montgomery (another offensive player, bringing the net loss to two) and another single-year player he himself brought in (Riley Reiff). He also brought in six more qualifying players: Tremaine Edmunds, Nate Davis, TJ Edwards, DeMarcus Walker, Andrew Billings, and Robert Tonyan. That’s two qualifying offensive players (bringing balance to the players gained and lost) but four more on defense (or a net gain of six qualifying defensive players).
|(D) Justin Jones 2022||R6|
|(D) Nicholas Morrow 2022||R6|
|(D) Tremaine Edmunds 2023||R3|
|(D) TJ Edwards 2023||R6|
|(D) DeMarcus Walker 2023||R6|
|(D) Andrew Billings 2023||R7|
It is also notable that the qualifying value of the picks has swung so that the defensive free agents have had higher value than the offensive ones.
Commentary: Barring some change, there has been a possible tendency to use free agency to fill defensive roster spots. That could be an artifact of coincidence, it could be an accident resulting from an imbalance in the types of players available, or it could be motivated by a conscious team-building strategy. Given that it has yet to be two full years, drawing any conclusion is likely premature, but it is a pattern worth noting to see if it continues.
One obvious interpretation of these early moves is that Poles was able to find defensive players he could trade away for additional draft capital only to replace them in free agency. On offense, either he was unwilling to part with the players who would attract trade offers or there simply were not players who attracted such offers. This interpretation does at least partially account for the cycling of players on defense.
The primary means of team-building available to clubs, the draft brings in promising high-potential players who are young and on price-controlled contracts. Thus, it is notable that for 2023 saw Chicago complete its second consecutive draft with at least eight picks. Prior to Ryan Poles, the last time the Bears had back-to-back drafts where they made more than seven selections was the run from 2007-2009, and each of the prior two GMs only had a single draft with at least 8 picks (2014 for Emery and 2016 for Pace).
That trend might continue, as well. By conventional reckoning, the first overall pick is worth 3000 points on the “Johnson value chart” or 34.6 points of expected value on the Chase Stuart chart. However, Ryan Poles has “tucked away” a significant portion of that value in the form of a future first-rounder, a future fourth-rounder, and a double-future second-rounder. In relative terms, that would mean 11% or 16% of the potential buying power of the #1 overall pick has yet to be spent, and it is instead bulking up the number of draft picks for the next two years.
On its own that is worth noting, because Chicago currently faces a future where barring future trades and without compensatory picks, it should be able to make “extra” selections in up to four consecutive drafts for the first time since the run from 1997-2000. Darnell Wright was born in 2001.
In the here-and-now, interestingly, Poles has most decidedly invested more heavily in one side of the ball than the other. Ignoring future selections and the picks earned through trading away current players, Chicago has invested draft capital in ten offensive players and seven defensive players.
The imbalance is even more notable in terms of the nature and value of selections invested. Both of the “first-round pick values” available to Chicago have been spent on offensive players (Moore and Wright), as have two of the other five Top 100 picks available (Claypool and Jones). In total, 65% of the Johnson value of picks available to Ryan Poles through his native draft selections has been spent on the offense, with 24% spent on defense. It is slightly more balanced in terms of Stuart Value (57% to 28%), but it is still a mix that favors the offense.
Including the draft value earned through trading Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Roquan Smith still leaves 61% of the spent Johnson value going to offense, or 56% of the Stuart value. Again, with only two years available to consider, it is premature to declare “favoritism” in any way, as there are nuances to the selections made. Reportedly, Poles pursued defensive starters from the Panthers alongside Moore, and that one change would alter the math significantly.
Commentary: As the last two drafts have unfolded, Poles has spent the majority of his resources on offense in terms of actual picks invested, value of picks invested, and expected return on picks invested. That remains true even if the selections made with value earned from trading away three defensive starters are included as part of his total draft capital, and it is most certainly true without that consideration.
What does it all mean? In all probability it is too early to say what it means decisively. However, Poles brought in far more defensive free agents who qualified for the compensatory pick formula than he did offensive free agents. He has also cycled more Top 100 selections through the defense than he has the offense (five to four), but his most expensive three acquisitions (Wright, Moore, and Claypool) have all been on offense. This is in fact remarkably balanced. That he has done all of this while still allocating resources for the future, as well, is functionally new ground for Chicago.