Bears GM Ryan Poles weighs risk, reward of trading down to No. 9 in draft

Poles led a strong Bears delegation to scout Alabama’s pro day, but the Crimson Tide’s two biggest stars are out of his reach after trading the No. 1 overall pick to the Panthers.

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A photo of Bears general manager Ryan Poles watching pre-game warmups.

Poles traded out of the No. 1 pick in the draft, but accumulated future assets to help the Bears’ rebuild.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — General manager Ryan Poles and his staff spent Thursday at Alabama watching some of the best players available in the draft, fully aware that the Bears gave up their chance at taking them when they traded out of the top pick.

Will Anderson, projected to be a game-changing pass rusher, won’t be there at No. 9.

Neither will quarterback Bryce Young, arguably the best at his position.

Those options are off the table for Poles, who said last week his staff sees a maximum of seven elite prospects in this class, and he accepts that. It takes a lot of “discipline” to make decisions like that, Poles said, and that’s a word he has used when discussing personnel moves throughout his time running the Bears.

The trade package he got from the Panthers included an extra second-round pick this year, a first-rounder next year and a wide receiver more accomplished than any on the roster in D.J. Moore. And that seemed more prudent to Poles than betting everything on one star at No. 1 — or even at No. 4 if he’d gone a different route and gotten less in return — regardless of how great he projects to be.

“You do the calculations: Is that one player gonna help us more than having the opportunity to add multiple players?” Poles told the Chicago Sun-Times. “To be good in this job, you can’t fall in love with one player. Guys like Will Anderson, when they’re out of reach, that’s always hard because you do become a fan of some of these players.

“Once you start falling in love with a player and saying this one guy is going to be a Hall of Famer — which there’s not many of them there — you fall into the trap of being narrow-minded. You should really have an open mind on how to approach the draft. There is no certainty. Just look at the statistics. So we feel comfortable with what we did.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban gushed about Anderson, highlighting his “throwback competitive character” and adding, “I can’t say enough good things about Will Anderson.” Sounds like he would’ve been perfect for the Bears had they stayed high enough to draft him.

Of course, there are always a bunch of reasons to fly in for Alabama’s pro day, and the Bears were wise to scout players beyond Anderson and Young.

Defensive back Brian Branch is another projected first-round pick; cornerback Eli Ricks, running back Jahmyr Gibbs, linebacker Henry To’oTo’o and defensive tackle Byron Young look like they’ll go in the second and third rounds; offensive tackle Tyler Steen and several others are intriguing, as well.

Byron Young is intriguing for the Bears in the third round given coach Matt Eberflus’ emphasis on that position, and the Bears have been unable to find a long-term answer in free agency. ESPN rates him as the No. 12 defensive tackle in the draft.

Veteran offensive lineman D.J. Fluker also worked out at the Crimson Tide’s pro day. Fluker was the No. 11 overall pick in 2013 and was a starter at tackle and guard for eight seasons but hasn’t played since 2020 and is 32. He’s an unlikely candidate for the Bears.

Not surprisingly, at least 12 general managers and several head coaches made the trip to Tuscaloosa. Poles led a delegation that included assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, Eberflus, defensive coordinator Alan Williams, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and offensive line coach Chris Morgan.

While the Bears aren’t in the mix for Anderson or Bryce Young, Poles was dialed in to their workouts. The more he knows, the better. It also gives him a reference point to compare future prospects at those positions. And there’s no telling when he might get another chance at them.

When Poles was with the Chiefs in 2018, for example, they didn’t have a first-round pick because they had given it up the year before to move up and take Patrick Mahomes. Poles loved Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds but had no shot at him, and he went 16th overall. But five years later, he signed him to a four-year, $72 million contract with the Bears.

“The crazy thing is how fast free agency or a trade opportunity comes up,” Poles said. “I remember watching Edmunds. As an evaluator, you’re always trying to sharpen your knife regardless of what you may need right now. You want to stay in tune to the quarterbacks and how they move and how they throw, so you always have that Rolodex to compare to as the years go by.”

As Poles analyzes the possibilities at No. 9, he also is preparing for various contingencies.

Now that the Bears have traded too far back to reach the “blue” players Poles identified at the top of the class, it would probably be even easier to stomach trading back again to stockpile extra picks.

“We’re open to that,” said Poles, who didn’t rule out trading back up, either. “It depends on what the deals look like, but there’s also multiple drop-offs as you go back throughout the draft. So we might not think that’s the best way to go because a certain drop-off at a certain premium position might be coming up soon. We stay fluid.”

The entire pre-draft process is riddled with tension for Poles between immediate needs and long-term plans, between quantity and quality, between plotting his own path and anticipating what moves other teams will make. Staying flexible is the best thing he can do.

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