PALM BEACH, Fla. – Ryan Poles’ first offseason as general manager of the Chicago Bears has been rife with tough decisions and disappointment.
Within the last three weeks, Poles traded Chicago’s top pass-rusher in Khalil Mack, a move – backed by head coach Matt Eberflus and ownership – that was both difficult but necessary, given the team’s long-term goals.
The splash free-agent signing the Bears thought they were going to make with Larry Ogunjobi ended up null and void when the defensive tackle’s surgically repaired right foot caused him to fail his physical. Poles said delivering that news to Ogunjobi “tore me to pieces.”
The process of pursuing Ogunjobi and then having to pivot caused Chicago to miss out on signing other big-name free agents as Poles began to fill the vacancies of more than 30 players whose contracts had expired or were released by the team.
And the bad news kept coming when Poles was informed that Ryan Bates, the restricted free-agent guard the Bears had planned to sign, was returning to Buffalo after the Bills matched Chicago’s offer sheet.
The rookie general manager has every right to be frustrated, but that’s not the vibe he’s given off. Other than lamenting that “it stinks” to lose a player the Bears hoped would compete for a starting job on the offensive line, Poles’ level-headed demeanor has allowed him not to get caught up in the urgency to make moves solely to fill out the roster.
“It’s funny, because there’s a lot of panic, like, ‘You need receivers,’” said Poles, who will have two second-round draft picks in the draft, which starts with Round 1 on April 28 (the draft will be broadcast on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN App). “I think Davante [Adams] was taken in the second, right? So there’s talent there.
“It’s not always going to be like that, I get it. And we’re going to be patient. If it’s not there, we’re not going to do it and force it, either.”
That mindset was evident when Poles was asked whether the Bears should add a veteran left tackle in the event Teven Jenkins isn’t ready for a starting role in his second season.
“I would like to, but the one thing to know, and I think that’s where mistakes are made – I can’t force something ...” Poles said.
While those answers may not sit well with a fan base whose impatience has grown with just two one-and-done playoff appearances in the last 10 years, Poles’ approach is what gives Bears chairman George McCaskey confidence that the team is headed in the right direction.
“That’s where I’ve been impressed with [Poles’] discipline, because he was very calculated in how he assessed various players that were available as unrestricted free agents and the limit financially that he was willing to go to with each player,” McCaskey said. “He stuck to his plan, and I was impressed with that.”
The Bears' offseason is playing out how most would expect for a team at the beginning stage of a rebuild. It’s felt slow in moments with a lack of marquee signings in free agency while other teams have gone all in to upgrade their rosters.
When Poles interviewed for the Bears job in January, his assessment of Chicago’s roster was “blunt,” according to McCaskey. Even though he was in a job interview, Poles didn’t sugarcoat what needed to be fixed. For someone who has expressed his own lack of patience previously, McCaskey bought into the general manager’s vision.
“Ryan's assessments, by my reckoning, were accurate, and I liked the plan that he had to address it,” McCaskey said.
A season of change in Chicago extends to McCaskey as well, who for the first time has the Bears general manager reporting directly to him, not team president Ted Phillips.
“I’m learning,” McCaskey said. “Ted’s been a good teacher and Ryan’s been a patient recipient, I guess is the best way to put it.”
Poles and Eberflus described an instant connection when the two were hired in January. Part of what makes that work is that collective patience.
Of course, the patience exhibited by all parties now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. The Bears have had three coaches since 2013: Marc Trestman, John Fox and Matt Nagy.
Patience also will need to be applied to the development of second-year quarterback Justin Fields, the former first-rounder who struggled as a rookie and is the focal point of the rebuild. McCaskey said the team needs to do “everything we can to get all that talent out of him.”
No, the Bears have not done enough yet to feel confident that Fields will be in the best position to experience the “big jump” Eberflus expects from Year 1 to Year 2. And Poles realizes that.
“I want to give him everything I possibly can, but you still have to construct an entire team,” Poles said. “You can’t go blank in one area and then just load up in one area ... We’re always going to be aggressive to get him the tools he needs to be successful.
“It’s just the timing, and the talent level and the cap situation, all of those are going to dictate when we can go and when we can’t go. But I think what we’ve done so far is at least establish a little bit of growth in the roster, plus the scheme, with the coaching, I see him getting better even from what we did right now.”
The draft will be Poles’ first chance to build the roster through his philosophy of drafting and developing talent, hinting that the team will try to create more picks than the six they currently have. The post-June 1 period when cap casualties become available could also be the way to address outstanding needs when a team with approximately $17 million in cap space can look to spend on veteran players if they don’t do it in the meantime.
The goal this offseason reflects where the Bears realistically are – the start of something new. And for it to work this time around will require the patience that drew the Bears to their new leadership in the first place, prioritizing the long-term gain over short term spark.
“We saw last year how the Bengals can go from last in their division to playing in the Super Bowl and coming darn close to winning the whole thing,” McCaskey said. “So what we’re looking for is progress. How are they putting the team together? How are they working together? Are we moving forward? Are we doing the right things? Are we doing them in the right way? And again, looking forward to seeing the results.”