INDIANAPOLIS—Saturday morning, Scouting Combine week, Chicago GM Ryan Poles’ hotel room, 19 stories above downtown Indy, scouts’ clicker in his hands, watching the 2022 Lions on tape. This is college scouting season, but Poles works these days with an eye on looming free-agency, and on the competition too.
It’s early in his GM career for Poles, 37, to have the first pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, but sometimes fate chooses you. And Da Bears could use this piece of great fortune, the first pick in a draft when there’s voraciousness to get to number one. The last time the Bears won the Super Bowl, the only time they won the Super Bowl, Poles was four months old. The last time the Bears won a playoff game, in the 2010 season, Poles was a second-year scout in Kansas City, just trying to make his way in the business.
Now he owns the joint, and he’s well aware what’s at stake.
“I believe in building something to sustain success for a long period of time,” Poles said. “To me that’s gotta be through the draft. This is just a chance to load up this team up with a bunch of opportunity and flexibility to do that. It’s time for this organization. The [practice] facility and offices were just built. The new president [Kevin Warren] comes in, and we think in the same innovative way, I think. We’re in position to have a new stadium. Now, with this opportunity with the first pick, it feels like an opportunity to kind of heal some of the things that happened before and become a really good team. Everything feels right.”
Poles spoke softly but urgently in 50 minutes. He was supportive of quarterback Justin Fields, saying “we’ve got to see it through” in giving Fields a chance to be the team’s long-term starter. It’s clear he’s not trading Fields, and he’s not picking a quarterback high in this draft. He left little doubt the Bears will trade the first overall pick and said he’d spoken to three teams at the Combine about a deal. (He wouldn’t identify them.) He said he had enough conversations about a deal to know in swapping first-round picks this year he can get “a ’24 one and a ’25 one” in a major package for a trade. However far down he goes in the draft this year, Poles wants to be sure he gets a “blue player,” his term for a premier first-rounder—and there may be only six or eight of those when the Bears end up setting their board.
Without disclosing many specifics about the process, it’s clear that Poles has enough information to think a trade could come long before the first round kicks off April 27. And making it now would require a huge price.
“Should we do this before free agency? Or should we wait?” he said. “I don’t know. That’s what I’ve communicated [to teams]. I could carry this all the way until we’re on the clock the night of the draft. But then there’s teams that want some certainty because, ‘If I need a quarterback bad, should I do that now when some of these guys, like Derek Carr, are out there?’ To me, they’ve got to go so much more above to do it now.
“I’m not greedy with it. But they’re gonna have to go above and beyond to close the door now.”
It’s crazy this year that there’s not a no-doubt quarterback in the group, yet there could be a frenzy to get to number one. Houston (picking two and 12), Indianapolis (four), Vegas (seven) and Carolina (nine), and possibly Tennessee (11) or Seattle (five), could all engage Poles aggressively. For Poles, and for the recently star-crossed Bears, this pick could plant the first-round seeds for a long-term rebuild. A much-needed one.
Amazing how NFL history can turn on something so strange as a two-point conversion. But the Bears lost in week 18 in the early window to finish their season 3-14; the game ended at 2:29 p.m. CT. There were two minutes left in Indianapolis then, and Houston (2-13-1) was losing 31-24 to the Colts. Poles made his way to the Bears’ locker room. A loss by the Texans would clinch the top pick for Houston. A win would hand the first pick to Chicago. There’s no way the Texans would want to, you know, win this game with such huge consequences, was there?
There was. With 50 seconds left, Davis Mills threw a TD pass to tight end Jordan Akins; 31-30, Colts. Houston head coach Lovie Smith, the former Chicago coach, chose to go for two. Mills to Akins for the conversion, and Houston won, 32-31. In a flash, the order at the top went from Houston 1 and Chicago 2 to the opposite.
Smith got fired hours later.
Mills was on his way out as the Texans’ starting quarterback.
“So I go into the locker room and [I swear] on my kids’ lives, my only thought process at the time was to just show appreciation for guys who fought through a really tough year. I talked to all of them. Then someone pulls me aside and says, ‘Hey, Houston won. We got the first overall pick.’ I wasn’t even there in the mental space to think about it yet.
“Then, that night, getting in the driveway at home, my neighbor drives by and yells out, ‘Hey man, congratulations on the first pick!’ And I was like, a little weird to celebrate this.”
As much as some fans wanted Poles to dump Fields (5-20, a 59.7-percent passer in his first two years, but 1,143 yards rushing this year), it made no sense to the GM. “When we started to adjust and adapt to what he did well, and he started running the ball a little bit, we saw a very unique and special ability and talent that can change the game,” Poles told me. “Now that next piece in terms of being an efficient passer is what we need to get to. I’ve been open about that. We’ve talked about it with Justin. He knows … Can he be more clear-minded when he plays, where he can just play loose because he knows where he’s gonna go with the ball? I do think there’s potential that we have something really good, and to me, you’ve got to see it through.”
Good decision. Fields might turn out to be a plus quarterback. Without a no-doubt franchise QB in the draft, it makes more sense to build a team around Fields—while getting the draft capital in place over the next two or three years if Poles has to go get a quarterback in 2024 or ’25.
As for the market, the best thing I heard here from a QB-seeking team in the top 10 was this from one top club official: “We’re tired of the Band-Aids.” How I see the likely suitors:
The aggressors: Indianapolis and Carolina. The Colts have had a different starting quarterback five years in a row, and haven’t won a playoff game in the last four seasons. GM Chris Ballard is under the gun, and he knows it. I think if he falls in love with one of the top passers, he’ll overpay for him. Carolina could be more desperate. The owner, David Tepper, has made it clear internally he wants a long-term answer at quarterback, and he wants it now. Indianapolis wouldn’t have to trade as much as Carolina for the pick, because it’d be moving up three spots. But the Panthers might be willing to overpay relative to the Colts, and if the Bears have enough “blue” players on the board to ensure they’d get one picking at nine, I could see them taking that deal. What would that package look like? Maybe Chicago trading from one to nine and getting first-round picks in 2024 and ’25 and extra second- and third-round picks over the next two drafts. I’m told it’s entirely possible cooler heads will prevail in Carolina, but we’ll see.
Interested parties: If Houston wants to cut off a suitor for, say, Bryce Young, the Bears could double-trade—taking perhaps two high (but not first-round) picks to go to number two, then deal again for a team, in this example, desperate for C.J. Stroud or Anthony Richardson. Las Vegas will be interested if there’s a QB Josh McDaniels really likes, but I’m dubious the Raiders will be desperate enough to do what Indy or Carolina would do to move up.
Outside shots. Seattle, at five, likely would have to lose Geno Smith in free-agency to get heavily involved. There’s no book on new Tennessee GM Ran Carthon, so never say never. But for him to outbid Carolina would surprise me.
“I’m blessed to be able to read people,” Poles said about the QB market. “I can feel it. There’s urgency out there. There’s pressure.”
One interesting thing to keep in mind: When the league year begins March 15, teams can trade draft picks in 2023, ’24 and ’25. Beginning on draft day, April 27, teams can trade picks in ’23, ’24, ’25 and ’26. That could make waiting interesting for Chicago.
The three interested parties at the Combine, Poles said, included at least one “that’s further back than what I thought … But if I’m going to the next tier [on the Bears’ draft board], you’re gonna have to make up for that with more capital.
“The interesting part is having a conversation with one team, and then one hour later another team texts you wanting in on the trade and they’re not afraid of what the floor of what you’re asking for is.”
This is the sense I got from Poles, the unspoken sense: He views this as, potentially, the gift that keeps on giving. Everyone has seen what the Eagles have done in gathering more and more draft capital; last year they traded the 16th and 19th overall picks to the Saints for the 18th pick plus additional picks in the first, second and third rounds.
“No one’s gonna rush me,” Poles said. “I know I can get a ’24 one and a ’25 one. You’re telling me for the next two years I’ll have two ones? That’s either four really good players, or if we’re cruising, we can still trade back.”
Good year to be running the Bears’ draft, for once. Now Poles just has to find the right deal.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column