The Chicago Bears fired head coach Lovie Smith after a 2012 season where, despite a 10-6 record, they failed to reach the postseason for the second straight year. Unfortunately, the team has only exceeded that record once since. At 3-8, they figure to finish with their third straight losing season with quarterback Justin Fields, and the second under the braintrust of general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus.
The 2023 season has been particularly rocky. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams stepped down in September after what was reported to be “inappropriate” behavior. More recently, the team fired running backs coach David Walker under similarly mysterious circumstances. These incidents raise questions about the level of institutional control Eberflus and Poles have, and coupled with their poor record, the duo looks to be on the hot seat.
Still, Poles made one savvy move, trading back from the 2023 draft’s top pick to #9 and netting a first-round pick, two second-rounders, and wide receiver D.J. Moore in the process. The crown jewel of the deal looks to be Carolina’s first-rounder, a pick that, with the Panthers sitting at 1-8, may just give the Bears the top pick in the 2024 draft.
Owner: Virginia Halas McCaskey
General Manager: Ryan Poles
Head Coach: Matt Eberflus
Virginia McCaskey, son of team founder and legendary coach George Halas, turned 100 in January. A week later she named Kevin Warren, formerly the Big 10 Commissioner, as president and CEO of the Bears. George McCaskey, Virginia’s son, serves as the team’s chairman, with Warren reporting to him. It’s too soon to know how Warren changes the power dynamic and whether any on-field effect trickles down.
It’s tough to imagine a head coach tenure starting more poorly than Matt Eberflus’. The Bears finished 2022 with an NFL-worst 3-14 record, and their 2023 campaign has been a similar trainwreck. Eberflus had been a well-respected defensive coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts prior to taking the Chicago job, but the Bears defense hasn't lived up those standards. Far from the “Monsters of the Midway” of yore, Eberflus’ Bears finished dead last in scoring defense in 2022 and are tracking towards another bottom-five finish. Not even two seasons in, he’s sitting firmly on the hot seat.
Poles has a stronger case for continued employment. He inherited quarterback Justin Fields, and as a consequence of the 2021 trade up that added Fields, he did not have a first-round pick in 2022. He’s been very active in the trade market, with some wins—that Carolina first-rounder looks pretty appealing right now—and losses—receiver Chase Claypool, who cost a second-round pick, did not even last a full calendar year with the team. The results haven't been there through two seasons, but the assets Poles has built can accelerate the team's progress in year three and beyond.
The Bears lack in superstar talent, but have a number of contributing pieces on both sides of the football, many of them young. Teven Jenkins and 2023 first-round pick Darnell Wright form the foundation of a mauling run-blocking offensive line. Running behind them are talented rushers in quarterback Justin Fields and young backs Khalil Herbert and Roschon Johnson. Kyler Gordon and Jaylon Johnson, a pair of second-round picks, form an effective cornerback tandem. Cole Kmet has emerged as an above-average tight end.
Poles has made a number of trades in his brief tenure, and two deals netted what may be the closest thing Chicago has to cornerstone players. First, he added Moore in the trade back from the #1 pick. Moore had proven a consistent contributor in Carolina and has taken his game to a new level in Chicago, on pace for career-highs in virtually every category and already exceeding his full-season receiving yards from 2022. He’s signed through 2025 at a very reasonable price.
The more curious move came at the 2023 trading deadline, when Poles dealt a second-round pick to the Washington Commanders for Montez Sweat, then immediately inked the edge rusher to a four-year, $98 million extension. That’s big money for a player who has been a quality player against both the run and the pass, but never a big-time sack artist.
A closer look at the Bears defense explains why Poles added Sweat; the team ranks dead last in the NFL with a paltry 15 sacks in 11 games. Yannick Ngakoue and Dominique Robinson both grade out as bottom-five edge rushers according to Pro Football Focus. Eight other defenders also grade as bottom-quartile at their positions, unsurprising given the defensive results over the past two seasons.
The offense has plenty of holes, too. The line apart from Jenkins and Wright has struggled. They’ve failed to find skill players to complement Moore and Kmet. And while Fields has improved as a passer, Chicago’s air attack remains weak. The third-year passer dislocated his thumb in Week 6 and the team turned to undrafted rookie Tyson Bagent, who did not fare any better.
Poles has done an excellent job in this area, accumulating assets for the future. Despite the big deals for Moore and Sweat, Chicago ranks sixth in projected 2024 salary cap space with more than $82 million, per Over the Cap. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson will hit free agency, but the other expiring contracts largely belong to fungible veterans. They have some money to play with this offseason.
They’ll have a ton of draft capital, too. The Panthers currently have the worst record in the NFL, leaving the Bears potentially with the top pick for the second straight year. Their own lousy record might net them another top five selection. They dealt away their second-rounder for Sweat and their sixth- and seventh- round selections in smaller deals, but they have an extra fourth-rounder. The two high picks give Poles lots of ammunition to play with.
Prognosis and Plan
First, Warren must decide the futures of Eberflus and Poles. Poles has had missteps, but he has accumulated a number of assets that will help the team moving forward. Eberflus, however, has failed to distinguish himself in two seasons with the Bears.
Next, the team must address quarterback. Fields has rare physical talent and at times he’s flashed the ability that made him the 11th overall pick in 2021. But consistency has eluded him, and the team must make a decision on his fifth-year option this offseason. In a recent team-building forum, Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman, who worked in multiple front offices, weighed in on the opportunity the Bears face.
""I don’t think you can be afraid of taking a quarterback.""- Dan Hatman
There’s risk any time a team drafts a quarterback, but at some point, they’ve got to take the gamble. The Bears had the number one pick in the 2023 draft and elected to move back. If they pick first or second again in 2024 and have the chance to take Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, they shouldn’t let the opportunity pass by a second time.
With their second first-rounder, Chicago has an opportunity to select another premium player, or perhaps trade back and add multiple players, a move that would help fill the gap of the second-rounder traded for Sweat. They have free agency dollars they can spend to address many of the holes on the roster.
The right moves can set Chicago up to compete in 2024 and beyond. They have some quality pieces; they are just missing the top end talent. Adding Moore and Sweat helps, and if Poles plays his cards right come draft day, he may just restore the Monsters of the Midway to past glory.