PHOENIX — As Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles explored his options for the No. 1 draft pick the last two months, he emphasized keeping quarterback Justin Fields in the loop.
The Bears’ plan was for Fields to remain their starter. But with the top selection in April’s draft, Poles and his staff also committed to evaluating the crop of quarterback prospects to make sure the Bears wanted to pass on picking them. Poles told Fields as much.
So when Poles in mid-March decided to trade the pick to the Carolina Panthers and drop back to No. 9, the GM texted the quarterback. Not only did the move cement the team’s commitment to Fields and give the Bears additional second-round picks this year and in 2025 and an extra first-round pick in 2024, it also gave Fields a No. 1 receiver to throw to — 25-year-old DJ Moore.
Poles, however, didn’t hear back from Fields right away with the expected response.
“I didn’t get a response for a while,” Poles said during an interview with Chicago reporters this week at the annual NFL meeting at the Arizona Biltmore resort. “I said, ‘Are you sleeping?’ And then he actually was. He took a nap. He woke up and he was pumped up. He got to connect with DJ, and he’s fired up.”
The likely course always seemed to be the Bears committing to Fields for 2023 after he threw for 2,242 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and rushed for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season under coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
The Bears passing game last season was the worst in the league, but issues with pass protection and a lack of reliable targets for Fields played a big part in those woes. The idea that Fields could continue to make strides with another year in Getsy’s system and better talent around him fueled Poles’ belief that he should have to be “blown away” by a quarterback prospect to move on from Fields.
Poles, Eberflus and their staffs watched a ton of tape on the top quarterback prospects, which include Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. They met with some of the quarterbacks at the combine and then mapped out what traits each might bring to the organization.
“I really needed something to take me so far above Justin where we didn’t want to look behind the curtain and see how this was going to play out,” Poles said. “I feel really good about Justin, still do. I think these quarterback prospects are going to have good careers too.
“I think having (Fields) in the building and seeing the progress that he made his first year and getting familiar with our system. Obviously there’s special in the athletic traits. We’ve seen in college his ability to use his arm, too, so I believe when all that comes together we can have something special.”
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The Bears have worked over the last month to build more around Fields.
They acquired Moore, who had three seasons of more than 1,100 receiving yards with the Panthers. Moore will join a wide receivers room that also could use increased production from Chase Claypool, who joined the team midseason in 2022, and Darnell Mooney, who missed five games because of injury.
“The one thing I really like is we have three different types of receivers,” Poles said. “We’ve got a guy (in Claypool) who’s a big body guy that can play inside/outside. We have Mooney who can separate and run vertically and make plays. Then DJ is just a strong, physical guy who can separate and make plays after the catch too. I like how everything’s set up. And then you throw Cole (Kmet) in the mix too. (Fields) has weapons. We have to continue to work up front and get better there too.”
The Bears also added former Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan, former Tennessee Titans guard Nate Davis and former Panthers running back D’Onta Foreman in free agency. Eberflus gave quick rundowns on each of those additions during a breakfast with reporters Tuesday morning before another day of league meetings.
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He called Tonyan “another big target that is familiar with (Getsy’s) offense that for us is really going help us in the passing game” and said he will couple with Kmet “certainly in the third downs and red-zone area where you need those big-body guys.”
He said Foreman, who will share the load with returning running back Khalil Herbert, is “a big runner who can really get things downhill and can take it the distance. And he is very competitive.”
Eberflus coached against Davis for years and saw “an aggressive, our-style type of player who can really move people at the second level.”
An upgrade at offensive tackle is still a major piece the Bears are missing in their quest to build a better offense after pursuit of free agent Mike McGlinchey didn’t pan out. As of now, the Bears have left tackle Braxton Jones and Larry Borom or Alex Leatherwood as likely options right tackle.
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Poles indicated help on the line could come via the draft, and the Bears could have several good options at No. 9 in Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr., Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski and Georgia’s Broderick Jones.
“When you get to this point of free agency … the salaries drop off, talent, experience drops off,” Poles said of potentially signing an offensive tackle in the coming weeks. “You do have a wave players offensively and defensively that will go through the draft because they kind of want to see how everything settles. So we’ll keep an eye on those players. But right now to improve our team, I think we’ve got to look to the draft.”
Beyond the upgrades in offensive talent, the Bears also are counting on Fields to take the next steps in development.
Eberflus said the Bears hope to dive deeper into their work on the passing game by doing longer 7-on-7 drills and focusing more on situational football — two minute, third down and red zone — during OTAs.
Like Poles, Eberflus believes they made the right decision in putting their faith in Fields.
“He took a step in the right direction,” Eberflus said. “Obviously he made some dynamic plays that the whole league was talking about. … Just like our whole football team, it’s a young team, and he needs to take that next step as the rest of us do.
“We’re solidifying the offensive line and we’re getting the skill sets around that we need to move the ball down the field and score points, and we’re excited about where we’re going.”