Bears leaving Khalil Mack in past was part of forming future around Justin Fields
Bears GM Ryan Poles hasn’t turned the assets into pieces that will help Fields yet, but he’ll get that opportunity soon.
PALM BEACH, Fla. — As general manager Ryan Poles sized up the work it would take to build the Bears into a winner, he clearly saw quarterback Justin Fields was the centerpiece of their future.
And to build around him, he had to leave outside linebacker Khalil Mack in the past.
It was a bold move for Poles to undo the Bears’ biggest trade of the last decade in his first six weeks on the job and, in doing so, to take a sledgehammer to a pass rush that was arguably the strongest part of the roster. But he thought it was necessary.
Mack is still in his prime, but the Bears went 6-11 last season and need widespread renovation. Getting a second-round pick and clearing a massive salary-cap hit off the books eventually will help set up the infrastructure Fields needs.
‘‘It was looking at where we needed to go,’’ Poles said. ‘‘It just seemed like the right time to do it in terms of value where we can help this team out now and in the future.
‘‘I would understand why some people would be upset. It’s not easy for us to do, either, but . . . my job [is] to do what I think is best for the organization for now and the future.’’
Whatever Poles does with the resources the Mack trade brought in, plus the windfall of salary-cap space and a full set of draft picks coming next year, should be viewed through a lens of what it does for Fields. He’s the franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future, and no one at Halas Hall will have more of an impact on whether the Bears can turn things around.
Part of that equation is providing a defense to back him up, but Poles’ most significant task is constructing a viable offensive line, supplying Fields with dynamic playmakers and formulating an offense that fits his strengths.
Basically, he and coach Matt Eberflus need to do the opposite of what predecessors Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy did.
It’s not clear that Poles has installed the necessary pieces around Fields for the upcoming season after he resisted the urge to splurge on high-priced receivers and offensive linemen in free agency and the trade market.
Poles picked up budget-friendly linemen in Lucas Patrick and Dakota Dozier, as well as affordable receivers in Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown. Any might be a quality player, but none looks like a game-changer at first glance. He also has two second-round picks and a third-rounder, but the draft is rife with uncertainty.
Reading into Poles’ comments since taking over, he seems to see sweeping out the dysfunction Fields endured in his rookie season as a big step toward him emerging as the quarterback the Bears hope he can be. Clearing out the clutter is an upgrade in itself.
‘‘He’s going to be put in a situation where he’s going to be comfortable,’’ Poles said. ‘‘And allowing him to do what he does best is going to allow him to grow.
‘‘I want to give him everything I possibly can, but you still have to construct an entire team. . . . The timing and the talent level and the cap situation — all of those are going to dictate when we can [spend] and when we can’t. What we’ve done so far is at least establish a little bit of growth in the roster, plus the scheme [and] coaching. I see him getting better even from what we did right now.’’
If he is correct, the pain of trading someone as talented as Mack will be worthwhile.
Poles will hope Fields can make progress during this transition season, then flourish in the next one. If he outpaces that schedule, all the better. But that’s the priority, and cashing in Mack for assets to realize that vision — even if it isn’t instantly — makes sense to someone looking at where the Bears need to go rather than where they’ve been.