1st-and-10: Time for Bears GM Ryan Poles to dig deep — into his pockets

By Chicago 10 Min Read

A year ago, Bears general manager Ryan Poles traded a second-round pick to the Steelers for wide receiver Chase Claypool. On Tuesday, he traded a second-round pick to the Commanders for defensive end Montez Sweat. 

In the dysfunctional world of Halas Hall, that’s progress. Poles paid a high price for control of Sweat’s contract rights, but at least this time he dealt for a player on an upward career arc who is having his best season and whose coach wanted to keep him. 

When Poles traded for Claypool, he paid higher than the original sticker price, giving up the eventual 32nd pick in the 2023 draft for the 49th pick of the 2020 draft. And he was getting a Steelers discard — Claypool was an underperforming player on the outs with coach Mike Tomlin. 

In acquiring Sweat, Poles at least traded a second-round pick for a first-round talent (26th overall in 2019) who has 6½ sacks in eight games this season. And he traded with a team that has not been nearly as astute in player-personnel decisions as the Steelers.

While Claypool’s availability was a red flag, Sweat’s availability — while still curious — is a little more understandable. Coach Ron Rivera doesn’t have Tomlin’s pull. And even with new ownership, the Commanders still are emerging from the dysfunction of the Daniel Snyder era.  

Be that as it may, the upshot of the Sweat deal is that Poles eventually is going to have to overpay someone. He wasn’t willing to splurge on Roquan Smith. He wouldn’t overpay in free agency — to his credit, probably. And — for now, anyway — he’s unwilling to overpay cornerback Jaylon Johnson to keep one of his best players happy and send a positive message through a locker room that needs as many positive messages as it can get.

Signing players only at your price is something winning organizations can attempt (thought it ultimately proved detrimental to the Ditka-era Bears). But teams such as the Bears in 2023 have to overpay at some point — especially with homegrown players who have earned a second contract and proven pass rushers. It’s like a loss leader that pays dividends elsewhere. It’s the cost of getting better in the NFL, a lesson Poles needs to learn before it’s too late.

2. Johnson’s situation bears watching after the Bears agreed to let him seek a trade, to no avail. It might be the best thing for Johnson that he wasn’t traded. Sweat theoretically makes Johnson a better cornerback if Sweat can upgrade the pass rush as expected.

It all comes down to what Johnson is expecting. After Poles gave Cole Kmet a top-10 contract for tight ends (four years, $50 million) in July, he could do the same for Johnson, who has a higher standing at his position. The trick is finding the same sweet spot he found with Kmet — a generous deal that still gives him a chance to outplay it. That’s never easy when pride and egos are involved. 

3. Just as Poles was not in a position to roll the dice on Georgia red-flagged defensive tackle Jalen Carter at No. 9 overall in the 2023 draft, he probably couldn’t take a chance on Commanders defensive end Chase Young’s medicals, which the Bears would be unable to examine until after a trade. 

Hours after the Commanders traded Sweat to the Bears, they sent Young to the 49ers for a third-round pick. Young, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2020 draft, is a more lethal rusher at full strength, but he’s coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last season and still isn’t back to top form. 

4. Sweat comes to the Bears under a cloud of uncertainty for 2024. The Bears are 2-6 this season and 5-20 under Matt Eberflus and could make a coaching change without a significant uptick in the second half. 

But while Eberflus is on the hot seat, Poles does not figure to be part of another upheaval after this season. His roster surprisingly isn’t noticeably better than the one he inherited, but many of his key additions are still developing — right tackle Darnell Wright, cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Tyrique Stevenson, safety Jaquan Brisker, left tackle Braxton Jones and defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens. Plus the Panthers’ No. 1 pick from the DJ Moore trade. 

Having developmental players on the roster didn’t help Ryan Pace when he had Justin Fields, plus Kmet, Johnson and Teven Jenkins developing in 2021. But Pace was in his seventh season; Poles is in his second. 

5. A year after Smith was traded to the Ravens, we have no winner. The Bears replaced Smith with Tremaine Edmunds in free agency (four years, $72 million), Dexter and fifth-round linebacker Noah Sewell. 

Smith has been a big hit as a leader with the Ravens. In 17 games, he has 168 tackles, 3½ sacks, one interception, 10 tackles for loss and eight pass breakups. The Ravens have improved from 21st in points allowed when they traded for Smith to first and from 23rd in points to second. 

Edmunds has 63 tackles in eight games, with an interception and fumble recovery, three tackles for loss and three pass breakups. But by the eye test, he hasn’t made the impact in the Bears’ defense that Smith did. 

6. With 6½ sacks in eight games, Sweat is on a pace for 14 sacks. But his transition to Eberflus’ defense is no sure thing. Yannick Ngakoue had eight or more sacks in each of his first seven seasons in the NFL when he arrived in August. He has two sacks in eight games — his fewest through eight games in his career. His previous low was four. 

Then again, with two quality pass rushers, maybe Sweat and Ngakoue will flourish together. Maybe. . 

7. Red Flag Dept.: Moore is on a pace for 94 receptions for 1,468 yards (15.7 yards per catch) and 11 touchdowns — arguably the fourth-best season for a Bears wide receiver in the Super Bowl era behind Brandon Marshall in 2012 (118-1,508, 11 touchdowns), Alshon Jeffery in 2013 (89-1,421, seven) and Marcus Robinson in 1999 (84-1,400, nine).

But while Moore has been as good as advertised, the Bears’ offense has been unable to pick up the slack when he is contained. In five games that Moore has been held below 100 yards, the Bears’ top complementary receiver is averaging 4.4 receptions, 46.8 yards and 10.6 yards per catch. 

8. Quick Hits: Kmet’s 10 receptions (for 79 yards) against the Chargers were the fourth-most by a Bears tight end — behind Mike Ditka in 1964 (13-168) and Martellus Bennett in 2014 (12-84) and 2015 (11-83). . . . Chase Claypool had his first catch with the Dolphins, for 15 yards in a victory over the Patriots. . . . The Bears’ last homegrown pass rusher with 10 or more sacks was Mark Anderson in 2006 (12).

9. Ex-Bear of the Week: Eddy Pineiro kicked a 23-yard field goal as time expired to give the Panthers a 15-13 victory over the Texans for their first win of the season. Pineiro has made 64 of his last 68 field goals (94.1%), a run that began when he made his last 11 with the Bears in 2019.

10. Bear-ometer: 5-12 — at Saints (L); vs. Panthers (W); at Lions (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Lions (L); at Browns (L); vs. Cardinals (W); vs. Falcons (W); at Packers (L).

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