Big surprise, big swing as Bears GM Ryan Poles drafts Darnell Wright at No. 10

It’s a defining draft for Poles, especially when he started out at No. 1. Whether or not he played this right will have enormous effect on whether he steers the Bears out of the bottom of the NFL.

SHARE Big surprise, big swing as Bears GM Ryan Poles drafts Darnell Wright at No. 10
The Bears’ draft was a big surprise — and a big swing by general manager Ryan Poles.

The Bears’ draft was a big surprise — and a big swing by general manager Ryan Poles.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Bears’ 2023 draft was a big surprise — and a big swing by general manager Ryan Poles.

Poles, who entered the offseason with the coveted No. 1 pick, traded back twice before selecting Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright at No. 10 on Thursday. It was a gutsy move to go from having his choice of any prospect to taking an offensive lineman who wasn’t projected to go quite that high. Even Wright wasn’t expecting it.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be much interactive right now,” Wright said minutes after being picked. “I’m in shock.”

He wasn’t the only one.

After trading out of the top pick to No. 9 in a deal with the Panthers last month, Poles had several options when that spot came up Thursday. Top offensive tackle and logical Bears target Paris Johnson, from Ohio State, was off the board, taken by the Cardinals at No. 6, but Georgia star defensive tackle Jalen Carter was available, as were Iowa pass rusher Lukas Van Ness and Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez.

Poles took a call from the Eagles, who had the 10th pick, when the Bears were on the clock and swapped spots with them in exchange for a fourth-round pick next year. He had no problem with them swooping in to take Carter.

If Poles was determined to get help on the offensive line, Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski and Georgia’s Broderick Jones were ahead of Wright in most rankings. Wright is coming off a season in which he was a full-time starter for the Volunteers at right tackle.

“The teams do this for a living . . . they know what they’re doing,” Wright said. “I’m just happy they believed in me and saw what a lot of people saw, but a lot of people maybe didn’t. I’m just happy that they believed in me, really.”

He believed he had top-10 talent but said it “just took the right team to see that.” He added that he’s “just scratching the surface of what I can be.”

Wright worked out for the Bears in Knoxville, Tennessee, about three weeks ago and struck up a strong relationship with offensive line coach Chris Morgan. Poles and coach Matt Eberflus made Morgan a fixture of their pre-draft scouting tour.

But the pick ultimately was Poles’ responsibility. And while he’s asking for some trust on this pick, he’s also a former offensive lineman who specializes in the position. Revamping that unit has been a priority since he took the job, although his resources were limited in his first year.

He and Eberflus have plenty more work to do in that department, starting with sorting out where Wright and incumbent starting left tackle Braxton Jones will play.

Jones was one of the Bears’ success stories last season, quickly locking down the left tackle job after they picked him in the fifth round out of Southern Utah. He struggled at times but started every game. He and the Bears have been open about him needing to get stronger, and Eberflus said last month they’d consider moving him to right tackle depending on what they did in the draft.

Wright, who’s 6-6 and 335 pounds, began his college career at right tackle, then started at left in his junior season in 2021. He also played some guard and said he’s confident he’ll thrive at any position. Teams, however, don’t usually draft offensive linemen so high unless they envision them as mainstays at left tackle.

Poles, meanwhile, bet big on himself by trading down from No. 1 and made peace with the reality that the move put the Bears out of range for elite prospects. He and Eberflus believed that quarterback Justin Fields had more potential than any of the players they could have picked at No. 1 — “We made a good decision,” Eberflus said — and Poles said it was “not an easy thing” to give up a shot at defensive stars such as Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson.

The Panthers used the No. 1 pick they got from the Bears to take Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, and the Texans followed by taking quarterback C.J. Stroud from Ohio State. The Texans traded up to take Anderson third.

Johnson was an obvious fit for the Bears, but they never got a chance at him. Although he was widely projected to be available at the Bears’ spot, the Cardinals — after trading back from No. 3 — traded up to No. 6 to get him.

Illinois star cornerback Devon Witherspoon went to the Seahawks at No. 5, one spot ahead of Johnson, taking him off the Bears’ board as well. Cornerback remains a serious need for the Bears to address Friday, when they have two second-round picks and one third-rounder.

Poles can live with any of the players he missed out on surging to stardom as long as he’s correct about Wright and his certainty about Fields is validated. It’s a defining draft for him, however, especially having started out at No. 1. Whether he got it right will have an enormous effect on whether he steers the Bears out of the bottom of the NFL.

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