Ryan Poles made quite a splash on Friday when he traded the No. 1 pick to the Panthers. The haul he received included the Nos. 9 and 61 picks, a first-round selection next year, and a second-round pick in 2025. He also landed wide receiver D.J. Moore, who becomes the top wideout the Bears have been lacking since Allen Robinson left.
That’s a nice way to jumpstart a rebuild, but there’s much more to come. Poles has a projected $76.5 million to spend in free agency, and he can officially start negotiating with players on Monday. That’s more than double the amount of all but three teams and easily laps NFC North opponents Green Bay ($24.8 million), Detroit ($21.4 million), and Minnesota (negative $6.7 million). When you finish last in your division you should have the most money to spend, a concept that was lost on the previous regime.
Thanks to poor spending by Ryan Pace, the Bears paid a league-high $93.29 million in dead cap space last year. Having sufficiently cleaned up their books, Chicago owes a projected $22.97 million in projected dead cap space this year, with about $13 million attached to Robert Quinn. Poles has done a terrific job cleaning the messes left behind by Pace and Ted Phillips. Last year’s limitations resulted in a piss-poor roster and a 3-14 record. Now it’s time to have some fun.
Chicago’s most pressing needs, in order, are defensive line, offensive line, linebacker, running back, and cornerback. Before we get too excited, Poles has pledged to exercise patience in free agency. The second-year GM won’t come out swinging for the fences, and will probably pass on the top available players unless one or more accepts a contract he’s comfortable writing. If anything, Poles has proven that he won’t exceed the ceiling he sets on a player’s value. That’s why Roquan Smith was traded to the Ravens.
Poles, who has emphasized value at every turn since taking the job last year, was asked if he can find value in the first wave of free agency.
“No, not really,” he said at last week’s Scouting Combine.
The agents for those players will nonetheless reach out to Poles because he has more money than anybody else. That drives bidding wars among other teams, something the executive would rather avoid. Poles wants to win this year, but he also wants to avoid the type of problems that derailed that Pace. Besides, he’d rather build his core through the draft. He’ll check with Matt Eberflus on anybody he intends to sign, and won’t add any player that the head coach doesn’t want.
Assessing the Bears’ Biggest Needs
- Defensive Line: Chicago had 20 sacks last season, as a team. You might remember that Quinn had 18.5 by himself in 2021. We labeled Quinn a regression candidate last year, and he didn’t let us down. The 33-year-old finished the season with one sack. It’s almost amazing that Poles squeezed a fourth-round pick from the Eagles when he traded Quinn in October. The top available defensive linemen are Javon Hargrave, Dre’Mont Jones, Dalvin Tomlinson, Marcus Davenport, Charles Omenihu, and Dean Lowry. Pro Football Focus predicts the Bears will sign Hargrave. I also like Frank Clark.
- Offensive Line: The Bears had one of the NFL’s weakest offensive lines in 2022, but the group did improve toward the end of the season. Riley Reiff deserves much of the credit. He took over at right tackle for Larry Borom, though neither will be counted on this year. The Bears are set at left tackle with Jonathan Braxton, and Teven Jenkins was a beast at right guard. Chicago needs an upgrade at center, right tackle, and left guard, and could open training camp without Lucas Patrick, Sam Mustipher, and Cody Whitehair, though Patrick is still under contract. The top free agents are Orlando Brown Jr., Jawaan Taylor, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Seumalo, and Connor McGovern. PFF predicts McGlinchey will sign with the Bears. I think Poles will sign Taylor and Seumalo. Ben Powers is a guy to keep an eye on, too.
- Linebacker: The Bears are counting on Jack Sanborn to be the answer at middle linebacker, and he’s the only starter from last year’s group that’s under contract. Nicholas Morrow had a decent year, and though he’s a free agent, he could be a candidate to return. The best available linebackers are Tremaine Edmunds, Lavonte David, David Long, Bobby Wagner, and T.J. Edwards. Bobby Okereke played for Eberflus in 2021 when Chicago’s head coach was the Colts’ defensive coordinator. PFF predicts he’ll follow Eberflus to the Bears this year. I’d love to see the front office add Germaine Pratt, too.
- Running Back: According to most sources, it doesn’t look like David Montgomery is returning. A flurry of moves at the tag deadline left Montgomery as the league’s best available running back. The Chiefs are rumored to be Monte’s next team. Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, and Tony Pollard are staying put. The best available are therefore Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary, Jamaal Williams, D’Onta Foreman, and Kareem Hunt. Williams has a knack for finding the endzone and would be a nice replacement for Montgomery.
- Cornerback: Jaylon Johnson is entering the final season of his contract and is an extension candidate. The Bears also love top 2022 draft pick Kyler Gordon. The position lacks depth and redundancy, however. Don’t expect Poles to splurge for a top cornerback, but he will add to the group. The top free agents are Jamel Dean, James Bradberry, Cameron Sutton, Jonathan Jones, and Patrick Peterson. I like a potential acquisition of Rock Ya-Sin or Byron Murphy Jr.