Things are looking good for the Bears after beating the Panthers on Thursday.
Well, not good in the present. They’re still 3-7. But good as far as the 2024 draft is concerned.
They’re in a unique position to have two very high picks thanks to their trade with the Panthers, who are 1-8 and slotted for No. 1. The Bears’ own pick is on track for No. 5. Between the two, ESPN’s Football Power Index calculated the Bears having a 43% chance of getting the first pick.
It’s rare to have two top-10 picks, let alone two in the top five.
But as alluring as that is, it’s only valuable if general manager Ryan Poles has a good plan. Teams are looking for players whose numbers they’ll retire when they’re picking that high, and it often doesn’t turn out like that. The Bears picked in the top 10 every year from 2015 through ’18, and the only player who materialized into something special was Roquan Smith — now with the Ravens.
The Colts were the last team to pick first and second, by the way, and in 1992 took defensive end Steve Emtman and linebacker Quentin Coryatt. Neither made even a single Pro Bowl and both were gone by the end of 1997. When they got it right with Peyton Manning at No. 1 in 1999 and Edgerrin James at No. 4 the next year, they skyrocketed.
In Poles’ rebuild, which is going painstakingly slowly, he’s still missing the biggest piece: a quarterback. And a general manager can’t be picking this high in the draft two years in a row and not come away with one by the end of it.
That quarterback could be Justin Fields, of course, and that would make Poles’ job much easier.
He could spend those picks to address other major areas of need like pass rusher, defensive tackle, wide receiver and offensive line. He could even flip one of those picks into multiple assets in 2025 and ’26, similar to when he traded with the Panthers to move down from No. 1 to 9 this year in a deal that landed him their 2024 first-rounder, ’25 second-rounder and wide receiver DJ Moore.
But regardless of the various factors that have worked against Fields since Ryan Pace drafted him 11th overall in 2021, he has not made a definitive case that he’s the franchise quarterback. He now has seven games — at most — to make a statement strong enough to bury his performance over two and a half seasons.
Unless Fields shows something profound over the rest of the season, the idea of keeping him another season — he’s under contract for next season with a team option for 2025 — while putting other pillars in place isn’t going to work. The Bears saw where the everything-but-the-quarterback approach got them with Mitch Trubisky in 2018 and ‘19.
Poles had a chance to move on from Fields this year by trading him and drafting a new quarterback at No. 1, but declined. The Panthers took Bryce Young, who is off to a terrible start on a terrible team. They, or theoretically, the Bears, could’ve opted for C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson or Will Levis instead.
Stroud went No. 2 to the Texans and has been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, rookie or otherwise. He’s fourth in passer rating (102.9), and seventh in yards (2,270) and touchdown passes (14). Aesthetically, between his composure and confidence, he looks the part of a franchise quarterback.
The difference between Young and Stroud illustrates a key point for Poles. Had he opted to reset at quarterback, it wouldn’t have been enough to simply have the asset of the No. 1 pick. He also would’ve had to get it right.
When Poles and the Bears’ delegation attended Young’s pro day at Alabama in March, he had already made the trade with Carolina and signaled commitment to Fields. But he told the Sun-Times he still scouted Young — and the other quarterback prospects — extensively so he’d be able to track the accuracy of his assessments.
“It gives you a bigger book to refer back to,” he said. “As an evaluator, you’re always trying to sharpen your knife regardless of what you may need right now. You want to stay in tune to the quarterbacks and how they move and how they throw so you always have that rolodex to compare to as the years go by.”
He already has been scouting the upcoming quarterback class, which is highlighted by Southern California’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders also have been floated as top-10 picks.
It requires a combination of prudence and luck to get this right.
The luck comes first, because the Bears have limited control on where they end up picking. If they win three more games and finish 6-11, that’ll probably land them the seventh pick. Meanwhile, the Panthers are as good of a bet as anyone to be the NFL’s worst team this season, but the Cardinals, Patriots and Giants are within a game of them. Other teams, like the Rams and Packers, might see their season going nowhere and opt to tank.
Nonetheless, ESPN’s FPI gives both of the Bears’ upcoming picks a 90% chance or better of falling in the top 10. That Panthers’ pick is key, though, because every spot it falls is brutal for a quarterback-hungry team. At that position, there’s a huge difference between picking first and picking anywhere else.
But not as huge as the difference between bullseye and missing the board entirely. The Panthers probably wish they’d taken Stroud. The Bears will forever regret not drafting Patrick Mahomes. The draft is littered with those kinds of disappointment. It all comes down to having the right picks and the right general manager picking.