NFL Draft will strongly shape Bears GM Ryan Poles’ rebuild after unloading No. 1 pick

Every draft is equally about whom you take and whom you didn’t take, and, at one point, Poles could’ve taken anyone he wanted.

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A photo of Bears general manager Ryan Poles watching warmups before a game last season.

Poles is running his second draft as GM, but last year’s supply of picks was depleted, This year, he had a full slate starting at No. 1 overall.

AP Photos

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When spotlights illuminate the stage at Kansas City Union Station on Thursday, the most pivotal drama of Bears general manager Ryan Poles’ rebuild will play out for a national audience.

It’s essentially his first full draft, and the picks leading up to and including his selection at No. 9, assuming he doesn’t trade out of it, will significantly shape his career. He spent more than a decade in Kansas City as an assistant with the Chiefs and ran his first draft as Bears GM last year, though he had to make the best of what Ryan Pace left him.

This time, it’s all on him.

It has been a choppy three months since the Bears got the No. 1 pick by finishing with the NFL’s worst record at 3-14. We’ll see how well Poles steered them through the chaos.

If he played this right, it’s a sparkling triumph. If not, there’s no hiding from it.

The Bears also have two valuable second-rounders (Nos. 53 and 61) and a third-rounder (No. 64) Friday, and every selection has incredibly high stakes at this stage of his rebuild.

Poles’ choice at No. 9 always will be weighed against the eight players he could’ve had if not for trading the top pick to the Panthers last month.

In doing so, he went all-in on quarterback Justin Fields over presumptive No. 1 pick Bryce Young from Alabama, as well as three others projected to go in the first round. He also took himself out of the running for elite pass rushers such as Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson and Alabama’s Will Anderson. It was a sensible trade for the Bears, but there was a reason the Panthers were willing to pay such a high price to move up.

Poles felt “comfortable” with his choice, which fortified the Bears with an extra second-rounder this year, an additional first-rounder next year and their best wide receiver in DJ Moore. Coach Matt Eberflus accepted it as “the price of doing business” and celebrated it as “a great move.”

“You do the calculations: Is that one player [at No. 1] gonna help us more than having the opportunity to add multiple players?” Poles told the Sun-Times in March. “To be good in this job, you can’t fall in love with one player. . . . You should really have an open mind on how to approach the draft. There is no certainty.”

That’s true, and it’s unreasonable to demand that every selection be a smash hit. But the No. 1 overall pick is the most powerful tool a rebuilding general manager can have, and it’s extremely difficult to come back from squandering it by taking JaMarcus Russell or trading out of the opportunity to take a transformative player.

In the same way that Pace’s tenure with the Bears was stained by choosing Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes in 2017, Poles’ trade with the Panthers ultimately will be graded by whom he gets with those picks and whom he forfeited the chance to get.

That’s the lens through which every draft is viewed. It’s equally about whom you take and whom you don’t take, and, at one point, Poles could’ve taken anyone he wanted.

That doesn’t mean Poles flopped if Young or someone else becomes a star. That’s fine as long as he’s proved right about Fields and the No. 9 pick becomes a pillar.

Ironically, in Fields’ case, Poles is riding with Pace’s quarterback. He stands as one of the few pieces from his predecessor that withstood the new administration’s demolition.

With Fields driving the Bears’ future, the best thing Poles can do for him is secure a long-term protector at left tackle. They’re likely to still have first choice among offensive linemen at No. 9, and Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. has set himself apart from Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski and Georgia’s Broderick Jones.

The Bears still have a long list of necessary roster repairs, and a compelling case could be made for Poles to take a cornerback or defensive lineman, but Johnson is the most likely selection.

Wilson and Anderson are almost certain to be gone before the Bears pick, and even with his red flags, Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter probably won’t be there, either.

Top-rated cornerback Christian Gonzalez is expected to be off the board, too. He and Illinois corner Devon Witherspoon said Wednesday they hadn’t talked much with the Bears and would be surprised if they took them.

Every pick is a tough decision, but the Bears hired Poles because they trust his judgment. They’ll soon find out if they were right. The moves he makes in this draft will strongly influence how quickly — or if — his rebuild succeeds.

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