LAKE FOREST — Ryan Poles had a vision in mind as the list of players filled his big board inside Halas Hall.
The Bears’ general manager and the rest of his staff zeroed in on players that all shared some similar characteristics.
“The one thing that was clear was we wanted to continue to add the guys that match the culture that we’ve set and coach (Matt Eberflus) has set in terms our standard, how we’re going to play this game on top of that, as you could probably see, increased traits,” Poles said on Saturday night. “We talk about big, long fast all the time. And that’s exactly what we did. And we’re gonna stick to that because that’s what we need to be moving forward to take the next step.”
The months of watching tape, interviewing prospects, conducting 30 visits, etc. all concluded with the Bears’ 10 draft picks that made up the 2023 class.
Here is what stands out about the Bears’ ten new draft picks.
Look, all players that make it to the NFL are superb athletes. There is no questioning that. But that is especially true for the players the Bears selected over the last three days.
The lowest Relative Athletic Score among the 10 draft picks was Kennesaw State defensive lineman Travis Bell, and the highest was Poles’ first-round pick, Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright.
“I think we accomplished a lot,” Poles said. “I wanted to get bigger, faster. I wanted to find areas that we needed to get better and put players that we think can impact the game in those spaces and help us get better. I think we’ve done that. So like I said, it’s a long journey in terms of getting to the top. I don’t know if you ever get the perfect roster, but that’s what we chase all the time. But I think we’ve done a good job taking the proper steps to improve our football team.”
The physical intangibles and overall athleticism can’t be overlooked either. Bears Co-director of Player Personnel Trey Kozial had an insightful comment when talking about Minnesota cornerback Terell Smith and what the team looks for in a prototypical cornerback.
“I think everybody, really, is looking ideally for big, long and fast, right?,” Koziol said on Saturday. “Because when you’ve got somebody with those physical skillsets, they don’t have to be perfect and they can still be right. The speed, the length, all that stuff is critical in the sense that they can run downfield with speed wide receivers, they can come up and support the run, they can get their hands on guys at the line of scrimmage. There’s a lot you can do with those guys to take advantage of some mismatches, too, which is great. That’s been a focus of us to get more athletic, to get bigger on both sides of the ball. I think we were able to accomplish that throughout these first three days so far.”
Surround Justin Fields with talent
By far the most important goal that needed to be hit before the Bears played meaningful games in September was there needed to be more offensive talent around Justin Fields.
The now third-year quarterback was deprived of playmakers and a stable offensive line in his first two years in the NFL. Now, the offense looks a lot different since the Bears last took the field in January.
Fields has a No. 1 wide receiver in DJ Moore and rookie speedster in Tyler Scott. A new right guard with Nate Davis. A new right tackle in Wright. Three new running backs in D’Onta Foreman, Travis Homer and fourth-round pick Roschon Johnson. And a new tight end in Robert Tonyan.
That’s a lot of new and much-needed talent being added to a Bears offense that struggled last season. The Bears needed to come out of free agency and the draft with players that can help elevate Fields instead of doing the opposite like we have seen the past two seasons. Poles thinks his team has accomplished that.
“Yeah. You want to support your quarterback because that’s where it starts so you want to surround him with talent,” Poles said. “I had to wait a little bit to do it the way I wanted to do it and the way we wanted to do it. I think we found some good opportunities to do that. Solidified and improved the o-line, make sure that we have the running game to stay balanced and then give him different types of receivers and different threats to create separation from the tight ends to receivers, so more big plays can be made and you can row your confidence and get in a rhythm. So now that’s the other we need to talk about too, is just building that chemistry with all of these new players coming together. So we’re looking forward to this offseason and putting that time in and building that chemistry so everyone can rely on each other. “
Interior D-line upgrade
The Bears’ brass clearly understood where the team needed to get better at for next season. It wasn’t a mistake that three interior defensive linemen were drafted. Florida’s Gervon Dexter Sr., South Carolina’s Zacch Pickens and Kennesaw State’s Travis Bell are all here to help fortify the defensive line for coach Matt Eberflus.
“Yeah, I mean all three of those D tackles excite me,” Eberflus said. “I’m excited to get those guys in here, get our hands on them and work with them, see how they work and see their movement skills you know up front and in person. And those guys are going to be dynamic. You know they’re all different shapes and sizes all the three guys that we drafted. You know they’re big, they’re long, they’re athletic, so it’s exciting to be able to have those guys and add those guys into the middle of our defense. You know we really feel that’s a really important part to playing good run defense and also being able to push the pocket, you know being able to vent the pocket inside and have some big athletes in there you know it’s certainly harder to throw around those guys too in the pass rush though so it’s exciting.”
It’s well documented how important the 3-tech position is for Eberflus’ defense, so the Bears went out and took several players that not only are capable of playing that position but can also play at the nose.
Eberflus explained in Saturday night’s press conference why interior pressure is so valuable in the Bears’ defense.
“I would say that the quarterbacks now areー for the most partー aren’t as big, aren’t as tall, so their sightlines are a little bit less than they used to be,” Eberflus said. “So I really believe when you have a nice guy who can dent the pocket from the inside, I really think that pressure is felt right away, because they’re closer to the quarterback. And I think it frees up the guys, gives them one-on-ones on the outside when you have two guys in there that can really do that. Because we’ve done it in the past where we’ve had guys that are bigger type ends and you kick them inside because of their length, and they’re going against shorter players, shorter-armed players typically in there with your guards and centers. So we like that mismatch at times.”
No help at defensive end
Going into the draft, the Bears didn’t do much to upgrade a defensive line that only accounted for 10.5 of the 20 total sacks that Bears finished with last season.
The Bears signed DeMarcus Walker to a three-year, $21 million deal and later added Rasheem Green to a one-year deal. Walker had a career-high eight sacks and 32 total tackles last season for the Titans. Green finished with 42 total tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2022 for the Texans.
And when the 2023 NFL Draft concluded, the Bears didn’t add any more defensive ends to the room. Poles explained his reasoning on Saturday night for that decision.
“Yeah, yeah, I think I talked about that before. I think you want to fix everything immediately but it’s got to work the right way,” Poles said. “The right players got to be there that fit our scheme. They want to be here. So, we can’t fix everything at a high level in one swoop. So we are aware of our strengths and weaknesses and we’re going to be opportunistic. That’s why we’ve done what we’ve done and we still have flexibility to do what we need to do to improve in different areas and if that’s the area that we improve moving forward we do. If that opportunity doesn’t open up, then we’ll just continue to do what we’re doing but there’s also drafts next year and we’ve set ourselves up nicely for that, too.”
Right now, the Bears will have to rely on Walker, Green, fourth-year player Trevis Gipson and second-year player Dominique Robinson to apply pressure off the edge. A possible wild card could be fifth-round pick Noah Sewell. He was asked to blitz the quarterback a lot more in 2022 than in previous seasons, but that would be a projection for the rookie linebacker.
Bears believe in their coaches
There is no denying that offensive line coach Chris Morgan was an influential part as to why Wright was Poles’ first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. How Wright handled himself during Morgan’s intense hour-long workout in Knoxville, Tenn., while Poles was in attendance left a positive impression on the Bears.
That meeting along with Wright interacting with members of the Bears’ staff at the Senior Bowl made Poles confident that the Wright would be a good pairing with the team, especially Morgan.
“Yeah, I think, you know, I’d say with anything compatibility is important,’ Poles said on Thursday night. “You can feel that when you’re around certain people. There’s a connection there. That happened pretty quickly, which is cool. I think the other thing too is what we all feel in relationships, it’s trust. Do you trust them? Are they being authentic? Are they being real? And that’s what Chris is, and that’s why that unit is a unique unit, and he’s going to add to it for sure.”
Eberflus mentioned in his Saturday press conference that Poles and the rest of the staff did an “outstanding job” finding players that are “H.I.T.S principal guys.” The 10 players selected have a reputation of hustling, playing tough and are athletic — which are all attributes that Eberflus and Poles prefer.
Now, it will be up to the Eberflus’ coaching staff to get the most out of each player, and he is excited to see that process play out.
“That’s why I hired these coaches as teachers,” Eberflus said. “They all have a heart of service and they love to teach and they’re good teachers. We pride ourselves on developing these young guys, and as you guys know, we’re not afraid to put young guys in there. If guys are good enough to start, we’re gonna put them in there and play them. We’re excited about the competition with the young guys and the guys we added last year. We’ll see where it goes. We’re gonna play with the best guys. Our coaches have done a really nice job with developing the guys.”