5 steps for Bears GM Ryan Poles to speed up the rebuild in 2023

The Bears want to be legitimately competitive next season. Here’s a path to get there.

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A photo of Bears general manager Ryan Poles watching warmups.

Poles will have a high pick in the draft and the most salary-cap space in the NFL this offseason.

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It was clear from the start of Bears general manager Ryan Poles’ tenure that he was prioritizing the 2023 season over the current one, and that made perfect sense. There was little to cling to from the team that careened to 6-11 last season, and it was going to take time to sweep away some of Ryan Pace’s bad decisions.

An ambitious timeline would’ve been for the Bears to absorb the ramifications of salary cap cleanup this season, be legitimately competitive next season and push to contend in 2024. Poles wasn’t in a rush, but that was plausible if everything went right.

Poles and coach Matt Eberflus have always talked about the Bears from a long-term perspective, as though they’ll be running the team for the next decade. That kind of stability would be incredible for the Bears, who went through three head coaches in the nine seasons after firing Lovie Smith, but only if things are going well.

And no owner has limitless patience for a rebuild. Everyone understands what’s happening now, but if the Bears merely hop from this to, say, six wins next season, that’s quite a slow growth rate.

Poles undoubtedly is aiming higher than that for next season, especially after what he’s seen from quarterback Justin Fields. Here are five steps he could take to accelerate this project:

Spend on an elite offensive line

Fields would be well within his rights to demand that Poles upgrade him to a first-class offensive line after everything he has endured the last two seasons. He’s spent most of his young career escaping. It’s a credit to him that he has managed to develop at all.

The Bears need to make life easier on him. While Poles is an o-line afficionado and probably does have a gift for spotting talent that other teams miss, it’s time to simply do it right and pay up for someone like Orlando Brown at left tackle. Rookie Braxton Jones can move to the right side, which has been a tough spot to fill.

The Bears might’ve found the limit on how far Fields can go without sturdy blocking. If they want him to leap into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks, they’ve got to protect him. It’s the single biggest way they can help him.

If the Bears accomplish nothing else, they must fix this problem. They’ll have by far the most salary-cap space in the NFL, and this is the place to spend it.

In the same way that teams with a great quarterback always have a chance, so do teams with great offensive lines. That was essential to the 2017 Eagles, for example, as they won the Super Bowl with quarterbacks who otherwise have been journeymen in Carson Wentz and Nick Foles.

Find a disgruntled wide receiver

The Bears gave up a lot for Chase Claypool, sending a second-round pick that’s currently No. 33 overall, but it’s unlikely they viewed him as the No. 1 wide receiver they needed.

Claypool has been quiet since the trade, but even assuming he returns to how well he played his first two seasons, he’s not at a level where opposing defensive coordinators spend all week losing sleep over how to handle him. Those receivers, like Justin Jefferson or Tyreek Hill, change everything for an offense.

One reason the Bears paid so much for Claypool, though, was because the upcoming free-agent class is thin. The best pending free agents are the Chiefs’ JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Patriots’ Jakobi Meyers.

But several top wide receivers were available via trade over the last few years, and if the Bears are willing to part with a first-round pick — whether that’s an extra one they get from trading down this year or a future pick — perhaps they could find a top receiver who wants out or a team that’s ready to head another direction.

It’s hard to predict who that might be. Few, if anyone, expected Davante Adams or A.J. Brown to change teams this year, but both did. Poles needs to be proactive to make sure the Bears are the team taking advantage of those surprises.

That would give the Bears a legitimate receiver group, rounded out by Claypool and Darnell Mooney. That compares well to what the Rams (Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, Van Jefferson) and Bengals (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd) had when they made it to the Super Bowl last season.

Draft a disruptive pass rusher

Logic says a team with as many needs as the Bears should trade down from the No. 2 pick unless it needs a quarterback. Since the Bears don’t, they should be open for business — as long as they can still get an elite pass rusher.

If they’re picking that high, there’s a good chance a quarterback-hungry team will make a convincing offer. The Seahawks, for example, currently have the Nos. 3 and 12 picks. If that third selection — from the Broncos — slides a little, they could be the trade partner. A 2024 first-rounder would be welcome, too.

The Bears could drop back several spots and still get a top pass rusher like Clemson’s Myles Murphy. Or they could keep the pick and get the best talent in the class: Alabama’s Will Anderson.

Quarterback is the most important position, but pass rusher is next. The Bears are last in the NFL in sacks, averaging barely more than one per game. They get pressure on just 16.5% of their defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference, which is third-worst.

Don’t be afraid of goodbyes

It was one thing for Poles to offload a bunch of players he didn’t acquire, but he needs to be just as clear-eyed about those to whom he is attached. It only compounds a mistake to stick with a player who isn’t producing.

Poles hoped to find a hidden gem with the signings of wide receivers Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown, as well as the trade for N’Keal Harry, but that trio has combined for 32 catches. It’s better to go fishing again and see if the Bears can do better.

The toughest dilemma Poles will face on his own free agents is what to do with running back David Montgomery. He’s an ideal personality in the locker room, he’s only 25 and he’s by far the Bears’ most versatile back because he’s reliable as a runner, receiver and blocker.

Montgomery’s modest rushing production makes it hard to predict how desirable he’ll be in free agency. He has averaged 61.4 yards per game, four per carry and scored 26 touchdowns in four seasons. Some teams might see that and adjust for the fact that he spent his first three seasons in Matt Nagy’s offense and make splashy offers.

Spotrac projects his market value at a three-year, $29.3 million deal. The Bears have too many other pressing needs to spend that kind of money at running back. They’ll be better served moving ahead with Khalil Herbert and adding a cheaper power back in the draft or free agency.

Finalize extensions quickly

Poles already knows he wants to keep Mooney, Claypool and cornerback Jaylon Johnson, so it’s best to get their contract extensions secured early.

All three are valued and play vital positions, and Poles doesn’t need any more contract squabbles like he had with former linebacker Roquan Smith, who was a hold-in deep into the preseason and eventually got his wish to leave when the team traded him to the Ravens.

Imagine that tension playing out this August. But with multiple players, potentially. And leading into a season in which the Bears will have much weightier goals.

All three of those players have performed well enough to seek extensions heading into the last season of their rookie contracts, and Poles should have a sufficient grasp of their abilities after spending this season watching them. These contract negotiations should be straightforward.

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