While Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus fills out his coaching staff, general manager Ryan Poles and the front office are preparing for the NFL scouting combine ahead of a potentially momentous draft with the Nos. 1 and 9 picks.
As he does every Wednesday, the Tribune’s Brad Biggs tackles reader questions in the Bears mailbag.
Do you recall another time when Bears fans have been this divided over an incumbent QB? I don’t believe even Ryan Poles truly knows what he will decide given he hasn’t seen what teams will offer for the No. 1 pick. Agree? — @rgbears69
I try to avoid the back-and-forth over the topic, to be honest with you. I’m not sure the masses are quite as divided as some believe. I imagine Poles will field phone calls, but barring something extraordinary, I believe he will stick at No. 1 and draft a quarterback. If the Bears arrive at a point in the evaluation process where they have strong conviction on a quarterback at the top of the draft, Poles should say, “No, thanks,” if he receives calls about the pick.
It simply doesn’t make sense to be at the top of the draft for two consecutive years and have an offense that is so consistently deficient throwing the ball and not take a quarterback. The Bears have a better roster in place than many teams that draft a quarterback at No. 1, and that’s in large part because the selection came from the Carolina Panthers. This shapes up to be an exciting, talented quarterback class, and if not now, when? It’s pretty clear to me the Bears will use a first-round pick, and likely the No. 1 selection, on a quarterback.
As I have written a few times, the idea they could trade down and secure the quarterback they want seems far-fetched. When Poles, coach Matt Eberflus and everyone involved reaches a conclusion on the quarterback draft board, eventually they will need to share that information with President/CEO Kevin Warren and ownership. They probably will be asked to summarize what went into their order. They surely will be asked some questions.
How in the world could Poles then explain to Warren and Chairman George McCaskey what went wrong if they came out of the draft without the top quarterback on their board? They have the first pick. Trading out of No. 1 would create an element of risk and they no longer would control the board.
Can you knock down the commentary crediting Ryan Poles with “the most lopsided trade in NFL history”? As things now stand, the Bears certainly have gotten more from last year’s trade of the No. 1 pick than the Panthers (though improvement from Bryce Young could eventually alter that assessment). Credit/blame for the outcome, however, belongs more with the Panthers than with Poles. If the Panthers had taken C.J. Stroud, as a number of wise heads recommended, no NFL GM on the planet (Poles’ press comments to the contrary) would have preferred the Bears’ side of the trade. I suspect that’s true even if you ignore that the Bears wouldn’t have gotten the first pick if Stroud had quarterbacked the Panthers. Elite QB play is priceless and in assessing the wisdom of passing on the opportunity to draft it, consideration should be given not only to the outcome of last year’s trade but to what that outcome could/should have been. — Dennis R.
I haven’t seen a lot of stuff claiming it was the most lopsided trade in league history. Jimmy Johnson might want a word with anyone making that assertion. He swapped running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in a 1989 deal that involved 18 players and draft picks and helped fuel a run of three championships for the Dallas Cowboys.
It was a great trade by Poles. He wound up getting a No. 1 wide receiver in DJ Moore and, with a bit of luck, made a move with a team that went in the tank, earning the Bears the No. 1 pick again this year. I could make a very compelling case that the Bears would be better off right now had they remained at No. 1 and selected Stroud. Some would counter that he would have struggled without the assets the Bears received in the trade (Moore, right tackle Darnell Wright, etc.).
I won’t discount that, but it’s a lot easier to fix a wide receiver issue than a quarterback problem. Stroud joined a Houston Texans roster that was really bad in 2022 and he turned that organization around almost immediately. He was throwing to a group of receivers who were, at the start of the season anyway, just a bunch of guys.
What really matters is what Poles does moving forward, not whether we consider if he swindled the Panthers or the Panthers made a blunderous decision. For the Bears to get where they want to go, they have to nail this draft. They need to get their quarterback situation righted like the Texans did with the second pick a year ago. The Bears would be fortunate to get a quarterback as talented as Stroud, and now they have a decent group of offensive players surrounding the position.
For the Bears’ improvement on defense as the season went on, what percentages do you put on the following changes making the difference: (a) Matt Eberflus taking over the reins; (b) the Tez Effect; and (c) rookie improvement? Or any other reasons you can think of. — @thesnowpup
A lot of factors were in play for a defense that was, in a lot of ways, much better than in 2022. Eberflus taking over made a real difference. In speaking with pro scouts throughout the season who kept a close eye on the Bears, the common theme was it was easy to see a focused, week-to-week strategy that wasn’t necessarily there the year before. The run defense was terrific, really from the start of the season, and that can be credited to a number of factors, including some offseason personnel moves.
Takeaways started to come in bunches after the trade for Montez Sweat, and we saw veteran players improve, too, with cornerback Jaylon Johnson coming to mind. The Bears played with a lot more cohesion in 2023, and part of that was the holdover players being more accustomed to their assignments and part of it was an infusion of new talent, both free agents and rookies. The Bears were also pretty healthy throughout the season and didn’t face a murderer’s row of quarterbacks on their schedule.
The three biggest reasons for improvement were Eberflus running the defense, the arrival of Sweat and the addition of other rookies and veterans — such as linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards and nose tackle Andrew Billings. I’d say each of those was about one-third responsible for the gains. Now the Bears have to be better against the pass next season, more consistent rushing the passer and a heck of a lot better on third down after ranking 29th at 44.1%.
What is the next significant Bears news that will come out: Jaylon Johnson extension, Justin Fields trade, other? — @jtbarczak
If I were a betting man, I’d probably wager on Johnson being franchise-tagged as the next big news. If Johnson is set on becoming the highest-paid cornerback in the league — and that’s what he recently said — that leads me to believe negotiations could take some time. The Bears can create time by securing him with the franchise tag. The window for teams to use the tag runs from Feb. 20 through March 5.
What are the chances the Bears go running back shopping this offseason via free agency? If so, what free agents do you think they have a shot at landing? — @twashington1029
I’m generally opposed to sinking big money into a running back. In a passing league, it’s rare to find one who is worth the investment. There are a few, but most years you can count the number of truly special backs on one hand. Some have suggested this isn’t a great draft class for running backs. I would imagine the Bears will do something at the position with Khalil Herbert and Roschon Johnson under contract and D’Onta Foreman a decent bet to leave via free agency.
Some have wondered about Saquon Barkley. He turns 27 next month and has averaged 4.07 yards per carry over the last three seasons. The Giants have been poor on offense, but I wonder if a lot of things around Barkley need to be right for him to be super productive — and how much production are you going to get at this point? Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard and Austin Ekeler are slated for free agency as well. None of them looked fantastic this season.
I’d be a lot more interested in the Bears’ plans at wide receiver. A really productive WR2 is more important, in my opinion, than a running back. The Bears already have a pair of backs they can win with if they improve elsewhere on offense.
What happened with Sanjay Lal? — @mosconml
The former Seattle Seahawks wide receivers coach was a candidate to join the Bears, and his addition would have made sense as he has worked with offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. Lal reportedly removed himself from consideration for the job. What went into that decision, I don’t know. I can tell you that after speaking with a wide variety of coaches around the league, some folks have concern that it might not be the most stable position with Matt Eberflus entering Year 3 and an uncertain quarterback situation. Assistants seeking work might prefer to hitch their wagon to a head coach entering Year 1.
Is Ian Cunningham still interviewing with other teams or is he sticking with the Bears? — @quikwit25
It looks like Cunningham is out of the running for a GM job after the Los Angeles Chargers hired Joe Horitz. Cunningham and Jeff King, the Bears co-director of player personnel, both interviewed for the Chargers GM job. Cunningham was a finalist for the Washington Commanders GM job that went to Adam Peters. So absent something unexpected, Cunningham will remain with the Bears.
Some were interested in seeing him get a GM job elsewhere because it would have brought the Bears two compensatory third-round picks. High-level front-office personnel are worth more than that in the long run, though, so I’m sure Ryan Poles is happy to still have Cunningham as his assistant GM. Yes, he would like to see a friend and co-worker get a promotion, but Poles wants Cunningham to help him too.
If the city was seriously interested in working with the Bears on a new stadium, wouldn’t it make sense to build the Bears stadium at The 78, then tear down Soldier Field and put a baseball stadium there? — @halatekhall
I won’t pretend to have inside insight on the stadium situations for the Bears or White Sox. My opinion is the Bears’ ongoing dialogue with the city has been about gaining leverage in negotiations with Arlington Heights over property taxes for land the team already owns. The city is probably motivated to continue communication with the Bears so it can appear interested in keeping them.
As far as what space is best for what, I don’t know. What I do know is the Bears spent nearly $200 million for land in Arlington Heights, and that space is massive and would allow for a variety of income sources if developed. Good luck finding a 326-acre site like that in the city that’s in a desirable area and a situation in which the Bears would be in control, not the city.
Who’s going to replace Cliff Stein? — @stanleyk934
That’s a good question. Matt Feinstein was hired in 2022 as director of football administration, a role that oversees the salary cap and contract negotiations. He has handled nearly everything in that regard since the beginning of the 2023 season. Stein took the lead on some of that in 2022 and helped Feinstein along. I’m sure Kevin Warren has someone in mind with a legal background to add to the front office. I doubt Warren fired Stein without having a plan ready.
Do you think Baltimore’s offensive play (specifically Lamar Jackson) against the Chiefs will affect how the Bears view Justin Fields for the long term? — @stevenhbaumann
Why would it? The current regime has two full seasons with Fields as the starter and three years (38 starts) in all to evaluate. Fields struggled mightily in Week 3 in Kansas City. Jackson had a rough go of it Sunday in the AFC championship game but was lights out for the vast majority of the season. Fields was up and down all season and more down than anything. I don’t see a connection between the Ravens-Chiefs game and the Bears quarterback situation.
At No. 9 — OL or Brock Bowers? — @bubgallagher
If the Bears stick at No. 9, my guess is a wide receiver would be the most likely selection. There would need to be an early run on quarterbacks and receivers for Notre Dame’s Joe Alt or Penn State’s Olu Fashanu — the top two offensive tackles — to be on the board at No. 9. Bowers is a terrific talent and worthy of consideration, but I could see the Bears going with a wide receiver here and really transforming the position.