Grading the first off-season for Bears GM Ryan Poles
January 25th marked a new beginning for the Chicago Bears. After firing GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy, the Bears went out and got a new man to lead their organization in former Chiefs GM Ryan Poles. Poles was so liked by the Bears ownership that George McCaskey himself picked up Poles from the airport.
It was seen as shrewd move hiring Poles when they did because after his meeting with the Bears he was set to meet with the division rival Minnesota Vikings in the days after his meeting with the Bears. Well, obviously that meeting never happened as the Bears inked Poles to become their next general manager.
Just two days later, Poles went out and found his head coach in former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Yes, you can make all the jokes you want on the Bears being cheap and not wanting to change the name tags too much by hiring another Matt and Ryan, I know I’ve made them myself on occasion. But jokes aside, I was excited by these new hiring by the Bears and not just because Toyota lover Ryan Pace (If you know, you know) and the failed “offensive guru,” in Matt Nagy were gone. Poles spent 13 years with Chiefs organization, slowly moving his way up the chain starting as a player personnel assistant in 2009 to GM in 2021 under president of football ops Brett Veach.
In this piece I will be giving the full rundown of Ryan Poles first off-season as GM of the Chicago Bears.
Khalil Mack to the Chargers
With limited cap space and an aging roster, Poles had a choice to make. Should he try to build on a roster with some talent but with basically with clear limitations or do a complete tear down. Poles chose the latter and it all started with trading away the big piece from the Ryan Pace era in Khalil Mack. The Bears shipped off the former Pro-Bowl pass rusher to the LA Chargers for a second-round pick (which they used on Jaquan Brisker) and a 2023 sixth round pick.
Personally, I wished that they had gotten more out of Khalil Mack considering the haul they gave up getting him in the first place (2 firsts, a third and a sixth) but I understand why the return was so little. While Mack had a good season, with six sacks in seven games, that’s all the games Mack would play after he would be put on season ending IR after getting surgery on his foot.
Health had been an issue almost from the get-go with Mack on the Bears. Basically, every week Mack was on the injury report with some ailment, but still played all 16 games in 2019 and 2020. I thank Mack for giving everything he had to the Bears and as fan I thank him for being the driving force behind the 2018 season, the best Bears season since 2010. However, I do agree with Poles that it was time to move on as the Bears will save nearly 60 million dollars over the next three seasons (6.15 this year, 28.5 in 2023 and 23.25 in 2024).
While it wasn’t the move I was hoping to see after getting out of one of my college classes, I completely understand why Poles made the move.
Defensive Line Moves
Letting Akiem Hicks walk:
Another member of the 2018 defense that Ryan Poles let go. While Mack was the unquestioned star player of the defense, Hicks was the heart and soul of the defense and arguably the team as a whole. The same things I said about Mack are true about Hicks, as while Hicks was usually a healthy player prior to the 2019 season (playing every game the previous three seasons) he couldn’t stay on the field after that. Hicks dislocated his elbow in October of 2019 which caused him to miss 11 games in total, then in 2021 Hicks only played in 9 of 17 games due to thanks to ankle and groin sprains that plagued him throughout the entire season.
Hicks would end up signing with Tampa Bay to help build up their defensive line. This was another sensible move for Poles as Hicks will turn 33 this season and by the time the Bears and Justin Fields are (hopefully) contenders Hicks will be in his mid to late 30’s and with his injury history, he’s not worth the same money he was when he was a Pro Bowler in 2018.
Honestly, Hicks leaving hurt a bit more than Mack leaving. Hicks were part of those awful John Fox teams and built himself into one of the most underrated defensive linemen in all of football. I wish Hicks nothing but the best in Tampa. Once a Bear, always a Bear. (Except Mike Glennon).
Failed signing of Larry Ogunjobi:
The first major addition that Ryan Poles made was signing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi away from the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. He was signed to play the three-technique since the Bears are switching from a 3-4 defense (3 linemen and 4 linebackers) to a 4-3 defense (4 linemen and 3 linebackers). He was signed to a three year 40.5-million-dollar deal. The one only thing left was for Ogunjobi to go through the standard physical and then he could sign that life changing contract. The problem was that Ogunjobi failed the physical going back to the surgery he underwent to repair a right foot injury sustained in the third quarter of the Cincinnati Bengals' wild-card win over the Las Vegas Raiders.
Poles made this statement at the time: "As I said before, Larry Ogunjobi embodies everything we are looking for in a Bear. He is a special person and player," Poles said. "... Unfortunately, we are not signing him today. This is difficult and it is emotional for everyone involved, but ultimately is what is in the best interest of protecting the Chicago Bears.”
I saw a lot of Bears fans who went after Poles saying it was his fault for “trying,” to sign an injured player, saying he didn’t do his research enough on him. I just have one thing to say on that point: Would you have rather Poles go through with the signing, thus hitching 13.33 million dollars a year to an injury prone player which fans would have complained the GM signing. It would be an endless cycle of blame and stupid blame at that.
I was disappointed with Larry O not signing with the Bears, but I would rather have a GM who is smart enough to know when to gamble on someone with an injury. The Bears are not in the position to make that gamble at that cap hit as a rebuilding team.
For Ogunjobi’s sake I’m glad he was able to find a spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers and I wish him nothing but the best. Overall, though, it was for the best that Poles pass on Ogunjobi.
In an effort to replace the failed Ogunjobi signing, Poles pivoted and signed former LA Charger d-tackle Justin Jones to play the three-technique spot. Jones was solid in his fourth year in the league as he had 19 tackles, three sacks and five tackles for loss in 11 games last season.
While certainly not the pedigree of Ogunjobi, Jones should provide stability and be an average to above average player in Matt Eberfuls’ defense. If I had to grade the signing it would be like a B- to B, good considering the circumstances but still not an outstanding signing.
This is another solid signing by Poles and clearly has Eberfuls’ hands all over this one. Muhammad is a carry over from the Colts defense and gives the Bears a nice rotation on the edge of Robert Quinn, Trevis Gipson, Muhammad and 5th round rookie Dominque Robinson.
I like the signing, especially with Muhammad being a pass rush specialist with a 17.4% pass rush win rate. He won’t provide much in the run game, but you know on passing downs watch out for number 55 off the edge.
Wide Receiver Moves
This is arguably the most important position heading into the off-season to help set second year QB Justin Fields for success with a fully revamped coaching staff headlines by former Packers quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Luke Getsy, who now runs the offense as the offensive coordinator for Chicago. Let’s see what Poles and the rest of the front office did to set up #1 in navy blue for success.
Letting Allen Robinson walk:
After four seasons with Chicago, Allen Robinson decided his time with the Bears needed to come to an end. In all honesty, while he didn’t handle the situation of being on the franchise tag well at times, considering the type of routes Matt Nagy had him run, I would want to get out of there as soon as possible.
So, Robinson left for greener pastures as he joined the Super Bowl champion LA Rams on a three year 46.5 million contract to replace Odell Beckham Jr as the Rams number two wide receiver behind Cooper Kupp.
While I would have loved for A-Rob to stick around and build up chemistry with Fields, Robinson wants to win a ring at this point while he is still a productive player. It’s all for the best anyway because Darnell Mooney was Fields primary target in 2021 as he caught 81 passes on 140 targets for over 1,000 yards. I hope A-Rob can finally get himself a ring with a great quarterback for the first time in his career. Thank you for everything A-Rob, good luck in LA.
Equanimeous St. Brown:
The first receiver the Bears brought in was former Packers wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Brown hasn’t had much opportunity with the Packers as in three seasons he has just 37 catches, 543 yards and one touchdown. He can provide some depth and has a knowledge of the offense and can help some of the other receivers learn. Now with some of the injuries in the wide receiver room Brown could play a big role for the Bears offense this season.
With his size at 6’ 5” and 214 pounds he can be a good redzone target for Fields. I would prefer at this point he was the WR4, but I still think he has some potential to be a solid NFL wide out.
Now here comes the Chiefs connection to the offense in former slot wide receiver Byron Pringle. While I’m not a huge fan of the chips (hot take I know) the more I’ve looked into Pringle, the more I like. Pringle was a solid contributor to one of the NFL's best offenses, grabbing 42 passes from Patrick Mahomes, including five that went for touchdowns, good enough for third on the team behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce who had nine TDs each. While those numbers are solid, it’s more the style of play that he has. He’s a classic slot receiver who can be hard to get down but can take the punishment of NFL safeties.
While he is currently dealing with a quad injury, I expect him to be healthy for the regular season and give Fields a reliable target.
After failing to find any footing in the Patriots offense, N’Keal Harry was traded to the Bears for a 2024 7th round pick. This move is the definition of low risk high reward for the Bears with Harry having a first round pedigree and will just turn 25 in December, so there is time for him to develop.
The only problem is that Harry just suffered a major setback with an ankle injury that will sideline him for potentially eight weeks.
For both Harry and the Bears I hope the injury is less severe than that as the Bears need bodies to fill out the depth which outside Dante Pettis and David Moore is very suspect. Wishing Harry a speedy recovery from his injury because he has some talent in there, he just needs a bigger opportunity.
Coming in with no first round pick in this draft (thank you Ryan Pace) because of the Justin Fields trade in the prior draft, Poles had his work cut out for him to fix several key position groups including wide receiver, safety, cornerback and offensive line while also building depth for the roster as whole. I will be looking at Poles’ first four draft picks to get a sense of how he did. Some of the other draft picks seem interesting, but likely won’t contribute in a big way in 2022.
The first official draft pick for Poles as GM in Chicago was Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon. The Bears needed another corner that can actually play alongside Jaylon Johnson. As any Bears fan can attest the CB2 position was a nightmare to behold having to watch Kindle Vildor or Artie Burns get burned to a crisp every Sunday. Gordon has some real dynamic athletic qualities that will help him adjust to the next level. One stat that I found that will make Bears fans grin more than seeing the Packers lose in the playoffs is the fact that Gordon has not allowed a touchdown in 18 college starts. While that won't hold up in the NFL, it shows how Gordon and fellow 2022 draft prospect Trent McDuffie absolutely put the PAC-12 receivers on lock down as Pac-12 coaches voted the both of them as first-team All-Pac-12 defenders in 2021.
Gordon is a versatile player as well as he can play outside as well as the nickel corner according to NFL analyst Lance Zierlein. I think his frame and athletic gifts can make him a really dynamic player in the Bears secondary and after watching all other corners not named Jaylon Johnson, it is a welcome change for all Bears fans.
Now I know a lot of Bears fans in the moment during the draft were not happy when they saw another defensive player taken by Poles.
I can understand that anger.
With a team that has been starved on offense as the Bears have been since forever, taking another defensive player with solid wide receiver prospects on the board seems maddening.
But just look at this play here and tell me why the Bears didn't need to draft a safety.
The Bears defense hasn't been the same since Adrian Amos left. It's more about the style of play and who the Bears chose to replace him with rather than the player itself. Amos was the hard hitting in the box safety that allowed Eddie Jackson to play "center field," on defense and snag any passes that came his way. Since then, Jackson has had to play more in the box since Haha Clinton-Dix and Tashaun Gipson didn't bring that same level of physicality Amos did. Well, based on this clip, I'd say Brisker can fit that mold nicely.
Brisker is what I would call a hybrid safety as he can play physically in the box in the run game, but he can also make plays in the secondary, like he did against Wisconsin this past season.
I can't wait to see how Brisker fits into Eberflus' defense heading into the season, as in the Bears first unofficial depth chart, Brisker is slotted as the other first string safety next to Eddie Jackson.
Velus Jones Jr.
The first offensive player that Ryan Poles selected was the 25 year-old Velus Jones Jr out of Tennessee. Insert all your "Velus is an old man," jokes here but this is the only time you can. But in all seriousness, Poles was given some flak for taking a guy, relative to draft prospects, who was pretty long in the tooth.
While Jones may be "old," he's got burners as he ran a 4.3 40 yard dash during the combine. Not only is he fast, it's how he uses that speed by returning kicks and being a gadget player on offense. Jones was a pretty tough guy to take down as he was the third ranked SEC wide receiver in yards after contact with 286 yards. Time will tell if that's because Jones was an older player compared to his counterparts in college, but it is a good sign of how Jones can play at the next level.
One of the other areas of concern for the Bears after last season was the offensive line which nearly got Fields killed last season, specifically in Fields' first start against the Cleveland Browns in which he took eight sacks on the day.
Poles let free agent to be James Daniels sign with the Steelers and Jason Peters should probably go back to fishing. That's not to say that Peters wasn't good last year, at points he was the Bears best offensive linemen, but he's 41 years old and if he does sign somewhere it should be Philadelphia or with a contender, not Chicago.
Poles got work using both the draft and free agency to rebuild the offensive line. It started with signing former Packers guard and center Lucas Patrick in free agency. Then right before camp got started, Poles signed guard Michael Schofield and tackle Riley Reiff who are now both slotted as veteran starters on the line.
Then in the draft, Poles added depth by drafting Illinois center Doug Kramer, San Diego State guard Zachary Thomas and Southern University guard Ja’Tyre Carter.
However the guy I want to focus on is the current starting left tackle Braxton Jones. Jones, who came out of Southern Utah has quickly worked his way up the Bears depth chart. He's pretty much impressed everyone, including stud pass rusher Robert Quinn.
It is surprising considering Jones was only projected to be an average backup according to NFL.com's draft profile of him. It said in the overview that, "Jones has moments where he can overwhelm his level of competition with size and length, but he's currently lacking the technique and force needed to succeed against NFL defenders."
It should be interesting to see how Jones does going up against other NFL pass rushers besides the ones in Chicago to see if all the hype during camp is real with Jones.
Off the field Issues
Teven Jenkins (Resolved):
There seemed to be an odd situation between Teven Jenkins and the Bears front office where he didn’t show up to the first seven practices of training camp in his second season with Chicago. At first, it seemed like Jenkins was having issues with the front office, but as it turned out according to Courtney Cronin, Jenkins is dealing with a undisclosed injury right now and is in the ramp up phase to get him back into playing shape.
Hopefully for the Bears Jenkins should be ready to go for their first preseason game this Saturday against Kansas City as he has been practicing in team drills and even lined up at right guard.
It should be interesting to see how the Bears use Jenkins after returning from a back injury and signing tackle Riley Reiff and guard Michael Schofield.
Ah, I’m going to have to talk about this now aren’t I. Sigh, well might as well address the giant elephant in the room now and not avoid it.
Roquan Smith, one of the most underrated linebackers in all of football is entering the last year of his deal after his fifth-year option was picked up by the Bears. One of Poles’ main goals was to re-sign the two-time 2nd team All-Pro linebacker considering Smith is just 25 years old and just had 163 tackles (good for fifth in the NFL), three sacks and one pick six.
The two sides have been in active negotiations but still couldn’t find a deal by the time training camp rolled around. So, to what seemed to be in good faith, the Bears placed Smith on the physically unable to perform list (PUP list) to avoid fining Smith while they worked out a deal. With no deal in sight, Smith decided to go nuclear and demand a trade according to Ian Rapoport.
In retaliation, the Bears removed him from the PUP list, making him subject to fines if he continues to miss/participate in practices moving forward.
This has quickly become a very sticky situation for Poles and the whole front office as arguably the Bears player and management are already having issues. As far as the trade request goes I’m not too worried as the same thing transpired with Deebo Samuel and the 49ers and he still got a three year contract extension with San Fran.
While I don’t know if the same will be true for the Bears and Smith, I thought the example was valid considering this is all taking place in the same off-season cycle. There is still a small part of me as a fan that worries that Smith may not be on the Bears for long, in the end I still think a deal will get done between both sides.
As for what this says about Poles, I think it shows he’s willing to play a little good cop, bad cop. Poles is willing to do things in support of the players and show they are negotiating in good faith but also be willing to put your foot down and be aggressive.
I also do give Poles a ton of credit for calling a press conference to address the situation:
"I'll double down on what I've said before," Poles told reporters. "My feelings for Roquan haven't changed at all. I think he's a very good football player. I love the kid. I love what he's done on the field, which makes me really disappointed with where we're at right now. I thought we'd be in a better situation, to be completely honest with you.
"In terms of our philosophy in the front office, I've always believed and always will that we take care of our homegrown talent. We pay them, we take care of them and we take everyone for what they've done and what they can become in the future. And with this situation, we've showed respect from a very early time frame, and with that said, there's record-setting pieces of this contract that I thought were going to show him the respect that he deserves, and obviously that hasn't been the case."
"With that said, we can't lose sight that this isn't about one player. My job is to build a roster that's going to sustain success for a long period of time. At the end of the day, we've got to do what's best for the Chicago Bears."
For the most part, I think Poles has handled this very well, but time will tell what the final result is.
One other odd trend for the Bears this off-season is the number of players arrested for different violations. David Moore, Matthew Adams and Pringle were all arrested this past off-season for various crimes.
Moore was arrested in his hometown of Gainesville, Texas on drug and weapon charges on July 4, according to local Texas outlet KXII.
Adams was arrested for with misdemeanor firearm possession which included being cited for possessing a high-capacity magazine within the city limits and metal-piercing bullets, a municipal code violation.
Lastly with Pringle, he was arrested for reckless driving after police pulled him over for doing donuts on a public road. He was also driving with a suspended license and had his young child in the car during the incident.
While I understand people’s first reaction is to blame the GM for this, especially considering Poles was the one who brought all these guys onto the team. It is the job of the GM to evaluate not just the talent of a player, but who they are as well so they won’t cause any distractions or do damage to the locker room.
In a gut reaction, I can see why someone would say Poles failed in that regard, but when you stop to think about it the GM can’t control what these guys do on their own time. To my knowledge, prior to these incidents none of these players had any criminal record.
My General Thoughts on what Ryan Poles has Done
Overall, considering the absolute mess of team Poles inherited from his predecessor, he’s done a solid of job of trying to clean it up. He’s cleared up enough cap space to where the Bears could have over 100 million dollars in cap space and seven draft picks to help build the Bears for the future. As for the now, Poles didn’t do a great job of looking into the wide receivers for Fields to have success going into year two, I think the change in coaching staff will help Fields tremendously. We’ll see how the 2022 season works itself out for the Bears and what it tells us about Ryan Poles and I’ll be tweeting right alongside you all (follow me @JacksonGrossMU).