A little less conversation, a little more action: Bears’ big plans will come into view over next 2 months
Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus have said all the right things since the Bears hired them. But now it’s time to make moves.
It has been more than a month since the Bears took a sledgehammer to their organization after going 6-11, and mostly all they’ve done since then is talk.
Chairman George McCaskey talked about new general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus embodying everything he wants the Bears to be: “tough, gritty, smart, opportunistic, winners.”
Poles vowed to rip the NFC North from the Packers’ grip and never give it back.
Eberflus advised players to “get your track shoes on” because they’ll run like they’ve never run in their careers once they take the field with him.
It all sounds nice, but now the talking fades, and the doing starts. And the moves Poles and Eberflus make with this roster the next two months will reveal far more about their intentions than anything they’ve said since joining the Bears.
They are already underway with their first major personnel-related task. This is the window when teams decide which players they want to move on from.
The Bears have some obvious candidates to be released, starting with linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Former general manager Ryan Pace chose Trevathan, now approaching 32, over the younger Nick Kwiatkoski and signed him to a three-year, $21.8 million contract that has mostly been problematic amid his decline.
The Bears can save $3.3 million in salary-cap space by cutting Trevathan and $4 million more by parting with running back Tarik Cohen.
Those two and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman are in line to carry three of the Bears’ top nine cap hits for 2022.
Goldman is a curious case, and a fresh evaluation by the new administration could go either way. Poles and Eberflus won’t be overly loyal because they aren’t the ones who drafted him No. 39 overall in 2015, but they also might not hold last season’s underperformance against him if they’re convinced he’s committed to rebounding.
They’ll save $8.9 million in cap space over the next two seasons by letting Goldman go.
There are other in-house decisions to make on quarterback Nick Foles ($10.7 million cap hit next season), defensive end Robert Quinn ($52.6 million over the next three seasons) and safety Eddie Jackson ($51.9 million over the next three seasons).
Several key contributors are about to become free agents, too, including wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, guard James Daniels and Pro Bowl return man Jakeem Grant.
The way Poles and Eberflus handle those decisions combined with how they attack free agency will give a clear indication of how long they think the rebuild will take.
Quinn is the truth serum.
If the Bears believe they can win now, they should keep him. He set the franchise record for sacks last season with 18.5, was healthy and should only improve as the team moves to his preferred 4-3 defensive front.
But if Poles and Eberflus see this as a multiyear process, they can save cap space and add draft capital by trading Quinn.
Even if they prioritize the future, however, the Bears can’t go into a full-blown fire sale. That’s too dangerous for unproven quarterback Justin Fields. It’s fine to be realistic and set a multiyear timetable, but not in a way that subverts his development in the slightest.
That means Poles must find him help, and Fields needs it in virtually every department.
Poles’ only significant draft picks this year are in the second and third round, but he also has options in free agency when it opens March 14. OverTheCap has the Bears at $28.6 million in space, 11th-most in the NFL, before they make any of the aforementioned potential cuts.
The offensive line gave up a league-worst 58 sacks last season, and Poles seemed personally offended by what he saw on tape. There are top-tier free agents available at tackle, guard and center. They’ll be wildly expensive, but the investment is worth it for Fields — and no one at Halas Hall will have a greater effect on new management’s success or failure than him.
The new staff won’t have any bias toward players the old group discovered or drafted. They’ll be cold and calculating, which is necessary.
Poles is sure to size up the Bears’ inadequacies at the skill positions, too. Tight end Cole Kmet simply hasn’t been a game-changer, so unless there’s clear evidence that suggests he’ll get there next season, that position goes on the shopping list along with wide receiver and running back.
Darnell Mooney is the only wide receiver under contract for next season, and he’s good. He’s not a true No. 1 receiver, but he’s a solid piece. If they aren’t bringing back Robinson, they can join the bidding war for Davante Adams, Chris Godwin, Mike Williams and others.
The Bears’ draft assets took a hit when Pace traded the upcoming first- and fourth-rounders for Fields last year, leaving his successor with only two picks in the first four rounds, then two in the fifth and one in the sixth.
Poles will be judged largely on the Eberflus hire and his draft choices. It’s imperative that he finds quality starters in the second and third rounds, and that effort ramps up when the combine begins March 1.
By April, the Bears should have a sharper picture of whom they’ll target in the draft, and they’ll already be through the pivotal portion of free agency. From there, they’re allowed to open offseason workouts April 4 — a two-week head start because they have a new head coach.
So while Poles and Eberflus haven’t actually laid out their strategy to the public, it’ll come into view soon enough. Whether they get it right won’t be known until the games start, but we won’t have to wait until then to at least find out what the plan is.