We’re two weeks away from the NFL draft with the Chicago Bears eager to attack the next stage of their roster rebuild. General manager Ryan Poles has been active over the past six weeks, trading away the No. 1 pick in March and adding a dozen free agents.
Much more heavy lifting is ahead. And with draft buzz getting louder, here’s our inside slant on three notable storylines.
Ryan Poles will have two big responsibilities when the NFL draft starts in two weeks. The first will be to find some real difference makers — impact starters and role players who can contribute early. The second will be to land a bunch of them.
For all the hypotheticals that have swirled through the pre-draft process, for all the speculation of what the Bears might do, their mission this spring is really that simple. It’s not only about nailing the first first-round pick of Poles’ tenure. It’s about assembling an entire class that creates belief and momentum for where the team is headed and what it’s trying to accomplish.
The Bears should view hitting on the No. 9 pick as a prerequisite to a championship pursuit. Yet by the end of draft weekend, Poles and the organization must use a wider lens to assess what the roster looks like and how this draft class might advance the team’s efforts to be far more competitive in 2023.
The Bears are a 14-loss, last-place team with needs at virtually every position on both sides of the ball. To some extent, that makes Poles’ job easier. Whatever the Bears decide to do at No. 9 or with any of the other nine picks they currently own, they will be able to justify their approach and frame the decision in a way that can energize a hopeful fan base that believes the bottom of the NFL can be an extra-bouncy springboard if hit on the sweet spot. This is Poles’ chance to nail that maneuver.
Through a grounded and sober lens, the Bears’ lack of talent and depth is jarring. That’s why Poles has been forthright and emphatic in noting that his efforts to build through the draft will take more than one year and perhaps will require three or four sturdy classes to put the Bears back in the Super Bowl conversation on a regular basis.
Asked at the NFL owners meetings to characterize the importance of this draft, Poles offered a surface-level assessment.
“It’s just adding to the core of players we want to win with here for a long period of time,” he said. “We have some needs that we have to fill. But again, it’s staying disciplined and really using the draft board and the value system we have to do the right thing in the draft. That continues to set this up for this long journey that we’re on.”
Indeed, this will be a long journey. And because it’s a long journey that requires discipline and patience, Poles and the other chief decision makers at Halas Hall will have to remind each other to juke past the pressure they may be feeling to fix everything immediately.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah believes the 2023 Bears should use their grounded self-assessment to set a realistic bar for the draft and the season. Jeremiah, like many around the league, understands that confirming whether Justin Fields is the engine of their next championship drive is the biggest piece of the puzzle.
“This is going to be the year of Fields, sink or swim,” Jeremiah said. “(It’s) knowing exactly what you have in him. That’s why, if you told me they had the 32nd-ranked defense in the league next year but they knew whether or not Fields was the guy and had that answer, I think it would be a successful year.”
That, Jeremiah suggests, should be a compass for Poles on draft weekend.
“I know you have a defensive head coach (in Matt Eberflus), but this should be an offensive-heavy draft in my opinion,” Jeremiah said. “I want to give (Fields) every opportunity to be successful and give yourself every opportunity to evaluate him going into next year where you have some extra picks and it looks — at least ahead of time — that it’s going to be a good quarterback year.”
That’s certainly one approach with practical value. Prioritizing 2023 more as a Fields evaluation project rather than a full-team assessment could have merit and might influence Poles’ draft strategy if he sees an opportunity to solidify the offensive line and add more game-changing playmakers.
But a defense that folded after the midseason exits of Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith in 2022 can’t be completely neglected either. And for the Bears to make good on Poles’ promise to “move the needle” in 2023 in terms of being more consistently successful on game days, a stronger defensive front is needed with true disruptors who can give Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle a heartbeat.
In a nutshell, the Bears can’t afford many missteps. And Poles should remember his duties in straightforward fashion. First, find some difference makers. Then, grab a bunch of them.
The question wasn’t even finished when Tyke Tolbert reflexively shot out his one-word response.
As a longtime NFL receivers coach, what is the one trait you find yourself magnetized to the most?
“Speed,” Tolbert answered quickly.
OK. Noted. So then …
What is the one trait over the years that has fooled you most often?
“Speed,” Tolbert said with a self-aware laugh.
Indeed, irony bites throughout the pre-draft process like mosquitoes at a camp site.
Those eye-catching qualities that often seem so alluring in prospects frequently turn out to be deceptive. Still, as Tolbert begins his second season with the Bears and his 21st coaching NFL receivers, don’t sleep on his philosophies and methodology.
Yes, the Bears’ biggest move of the offseason to date was last month’s trade with the Carolina Panthers that brings proven veteran DJ Moore into Tolbert’s classroom at Halas Hall. And sure, the Bears also have Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool returning to prominent roles in 2023 with Velus Jones and Equanimeous St. Brown also looking to solidify spots in the offense.
But it’s not out of the question that general manager Ryan Poles could look for additional competition and depth at receiver in the draft. To that end, Tolbert expanded on his every-year wish list for receivers, emphasizing that proven playmaking ability is his top prerequisite.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you like big guys, small guys, inside guys, outside, whatever?’ I look for playmakers,” Tolbert said. “No matter what shape, size or color they are, if they can make plays, then you dig more into it. And then you look for guys who can run, guys who are intelligent, guys who are multipositional. You look at all that stuff.”
Tolbert also dives into how much a receiver was asked to take on in college and often pushes to fly in the night before a prospect’s pro day with the goal of watching game video and talking X’s and O’s with the player at the deepest level possible.
“A lot of times in college, it’s so much different from the NFL,” Tolbert said. “They’re on the ball, no huddle, looking at cards (on the sideline) that tell them what to do. In the NFL, you have to hear a play, a motion, a shift, an adjustment and be ready to go. That’s why nowadays it can be difficult for some guys to adjust quickly.”
As for that attraction to speed, Tolbert tacks on a qualifier.
“The thing I like the most in a receiver is the ability to cut and separate,” he said. “Now, if you have someone who is fast and who can cut and separate, that’s phenomenal.”
But if that speed isn’t elite? No problem, Tolbert said. Just find other ways to cut and separate at a high level. After all, Tolbert points out he began his NFL coaching career in 2003 with the Arizona Cardinals. That spring, the team used a second-round pick on Florida State’s Anquan Boldin, whose 40-yard dash time of 4.71 seconds at the combine was less than impressive.
Less than a year later, Boldin was the only rookie at the Pro Bowl, celebrating a season in which he racked up 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. That was the start of a 14-season career in which he amassed more than 1,000 catches, 13,000 yards and 80 touchdowns.
“What he ran at the combine is well-documented,” Tolbert said. “He didn’t have the speed. But he could cut and separate and make plays on the ball. So that’s what I look for — those guys who can cut and separate.”
What might that mean at Halas Hall in two weeks if the Bears feel an urge to add to their receiving corps? If Poles wants to give quarterback Justin Fields the toy he most wants, he might consider making Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba the headliner of the team’s draft class.
Smith-Njigba may not have impressive size or blazing speed. But the one thing he may be best at is separating.
“You don’t have a guy who’s going to beat you on a ton of 50-50 balls,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “But he does have strong hands and will make contested catches. You don’t have a guy who’s going to flat-out outrun you. But his football instincts, his feel for the game and his short-area quickness in getting in and out of breaks and then being able to separate with subtle moves, with sharp-cutting moves, is what separates him.”
As a freshman at Ohio State in 2020 with Fields the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback, Smith-Njigba caught 10 passes — and Fields’ eye just about every week on the practice field. For the past two years, both players have dreamed of a reunion.
“Since he’s been in Chicago, we’ve always talked about it,” Smith-Njigba said at the combine in February. “I feel like we definitely have a little connection from back in the day. Hopefully we can maybe do it again.”
Poles and the Bears also could feel more compelled to grab a playmaking receiver on Day 2 or 3 of the draft. Michigan State’s Jayden Reed, North Carolina’s Josh Downs, Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt, Cincinnati’s Tyler Scott and Princeton’s Andrei Iosivas are prospects worth keeping on the radar.
At a minimum, Tolbert will continue pushing for players with that proven ability to cut and separate. And if elite speed is also part of the package, that won’t hurt either.
A new name for the Bears popped up in the always-active mock draft universe this week when ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had them selecting Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright at No. 9 — one pick after the Atlanta Falcons take Georgia edge rusher Nolan Smith and right before the Philadelphia Eagles grab Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski.
For weeks there has been an assumption that if Ryan Poles were to prioritize his offensive line at the top of the draft, he would be choosing between Skoronski, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson and Georgia’s Broderick Jones. But in his penultimate mock draft two weeks ahead of the first round, Kiper offered a new twist, sending Wright to Halas Hall as an intriguing option to start at right tackle.
“I like Wright’s opportunity with the Bears if we’re strictly looking at right tackles, since Braxton Jones held his own on the left side last season,” Kiper wrote. “Wright started 27 games at right tackle in college; his tape against Will Anderson Jr. and Alabama was phenomenal. He’s the best right tackle in this class. … This is a selection to keep quarterback Justin Fields clean.”
Kiper has done three other mocks and previously had the Bears selecting Johnson as their offensive tackle of choice or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter if they choose to aid the defense. Still, it’s worth knowing a little more about Wright, who made 13 starts at right tackle last season and has experience on the left side as well.
The talent evaluators at The 33rd Team rank Wright as the fifth-best offensive tackle and No. 28 prospect overall. At 6-foot-5 and 333 pounds, he has prototypical size plus an impressive ability to finish with aggression. But questions remain about his athleticism and agility.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick tweeted a glowing endorsement of Wright last month, believing he can emerge as an All-Pro-caliber talent immediately.
A more significant testimonial may have come from the best pass rusher in this draft class. Alabama’s Anderson singled out Wright at the combine as the hardest offensive linemen he faced last season.
Anderson had 34½ sacks during his college career and was credited with more than 200 quarterback pressures in three seasons with the Crimson Tide. But in a 52-49 loss at Tennessee in October, he didn’t register a single quarterback hit, struggling to get past Wright.
Wright said his detailed preparation for that game catalyzed his success as he worked to discover strategies to neutralize Anderson’s biggest strengths.
Wright credits former Tennessee teammates Cade Mays and Trey Smith — now with the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively — for showing him a path toward being more prepared to take this next big career leap.
“They’ve been helping me carry myself in a way that’s professional,” Wright said. “I’ve already implemented the steps to get to this point to be a professional. Now it’s about preparing yourself in that way and having confidence.”
Wright figures to have his name called on the first night of the draft April 27. Kiper sees a scenario in which it’s the Bears who select him.