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Bears GM Ryan Poles returns to NFL combine with No. 1 pick

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles was such a focus of attention at last year's NFL scouting combine that he had to change hotels in order to avoid the crush of inquiries about the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

This week, Poles might need a change of hotels and an alias. He once again has the No. 1 overall pick via a trade last year with the Carolina Panthers. And considering the consensus top pick, USC's Caleb Williams, is regarded as a generational talent, offers should be at a premium.

"Caleb is my No. 1 player in this draft," ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said. "No one else is taking that spot."

During last year's combine, Poles and Scott Fitterer, then the Panthers GM, laid the groundwork for a blockbuster trade that took place one week after the combine. Chicago sent the top pick to Carolina for a package that included wide receiver DJ Moore and the Panthers' top pick this year. Fitterer chose Bryce Young, who struggled as the Panthers went 3-14, setting up the Bears for the No. 1 pick. Fitterer was fired after the season.

The Houston Texans took C.J. Stroud with the second pick last year, and Stroud turned in one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history while leading the Texans to the playoffs. Whether Poles again trades out of the top spot to continue building around Justin Fields will be one of the main storylines of this offseason.

"It's not just the film. I need [to know] the person," Poles said last month when asked how he would evaluate Fields versus a college quarterback. "There's a whole process here that we have to figure out."

That process will reach another level at the combine, which begins Tuesday in Indianapolis.

New Bears offensive coordinator Shane Waldron said he "totally believes" the system he will install will work for either Fields or a rookie quarterback.

"The tape is obviously their résumé in terms of the player, but what is the person like?" Waldron said. "How is that person going to be able to adjust and adapt to the next level here?"

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Chicago became the first team in the common draft era -- since 1967 -- to earn the No. 1 overall pick one season after trading it.

The Bears join the Arizona Cardinals as the only teams with multiple first-round picks. Chicago has not selected two players in the draft's first round since 2003, when the Bears drafted defensive end Michael Haynes 14th and quarterback Rex Grossman with the No. 22 pick.

The Texans had two first-round picks last year, using their own pick at No. 2 on Stroud and trading back into the first round on the very next pick (via Arizona) and selecting defensive end Will Anderson third overall.

"When I knew we had the ability to trade and get Will [along with] C.J., it was 'OK, it's on,'" Texans coach DeMeco Ryans told ESPN in January. "You don't always get the top guys that you want. So for us to get two top guys we wanted at two key positions at quarterback and defensive end, that was the start."

The Texans went from a 3-13 finish in 2022 to first place in the AFC South with a 10-7 record last season. Stroud and Anderson took home offensive and defensive rookie of the year honors, respectively, and helped the Texans win their first playoff game since 2019.

With two picks inside the top 10 of the 2024 draft order, Chicago hopes its fate will be similar to Houston's.

"I think the Bears have a great opportunity to get a franchise quarterback and then a game-changing wide receiver to pair him with and stay young and cheap on the offensive line," Miller said.

Miller believes the Bears could handle their ninth overall pick several different ways, including drafting a wide receiver or offensive lineman. Where the Bears decide to spend in free agency could also foreshadow their plans for their second first-round pick. A loaded free agent crop of defensive linemen, from the Minnesota Vikings' Danielle Hunter to the Panthers' Brian Burns to the Baltimore Ravens' Justin Madubuike to the Miami Dolphins' Christian Wilkins, could potentially lead the Bears to target pass-rush help next month in free agency instead of at No. 9.

But before getting to that No. 9 pick, the Bears must decide their plans at quarterback. Fields has repeated his desire to remain in Chicago but said recently on the "St. Brown Brothers" podcast that he hopes to know where he'll be playing sooner rather than later.

That timeline is one the Bears should hope to follow, too, if their intent is to replace Fields at the top of the draft order. Capitalizing on the pre-draft quarterback market would be the goal, and although trades cannot be finalized until the start of the 2024 league year on March 13, teams can reach an agreement on preliminary trade offers at any point between now and then.

If the Bears conclude that their plans will be centered around Williams, the setup around the rookie quarterback is what will determine his success in transitioning from college to the NFL.

"It'll be important that Chicago has a framework in place for him," Miller said. "I think it really helps them that they've got Ryan Poles as general manager who was in Kansas City and watched some of the guardrails that the Chiefs put up for [Patrick] Mahomes, so that he could be great and be creative but still have the early success, because he did have a good scheme and system around him."

ESPN Texans reporter DJ Bien-Aime contributed to this report.