15 months into his ‘disciplined’ rebuild, Chicago Bears GM Ryan Poles faces a crucial task — making the most of the return for the No. 1 pick

Ryan Poles couldn’t escape his own image.

In early March, the Chicago Bears general manager was at the NFL scouting combine with the No. 1 draft pick and the intention to trade that rare jewel for more assets.

As everyone tried to figure out what Poles would do with the top pick, he was one of the most popular people in Indianapolis, a point driven home by the TV broadcasts playing in the team’s suite during combine workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I felt like 10 times per workout my face was up on the screen,” Poles said. “It was like, ‘All right, we get the point. Everyone knows who I am now.’ ”

Just 14 months into his new job, Poles was at the center of the football universe for a frenzied few weeks of speculation and negotiation. He did interviews with the NFL’s most prominent journalists in between fielding offers from GMs. He fought through sleepless nights and constant pacing in the final days of trade talks.

Then on March 10, Poles dealt the No. 1 pick to the Carolina Panthers for a package that included wide receiver DJ Moore, the Nos. 9 and 61 picks in 2023, a first-rounder in 2024 and a second-rounder in 2025.

The biggest moment of the 37-year-old GM’s career came with some relief when the trade became official five days later. The national attention since has ebbed a bit. But an undercurrent of pressure continues as Poles moves deeper into rebuilding a team in a city that has been craving a Super Bowl win for more than 36 years.

While watching the Bears finish the 2022 season 3-14, Poles was acutely aware of that pressure and also determined to fight it in his quest to do his job the right, disciplined way. His first year-plus of learning and growth as a GM has meant navigating those two realities and the anxieties and anticipation that come with them.

“Anytime you went to Soldier Field, especially early on, you felt it, how much it meant to everyone,” Poles said. “I knew how difficult it would be. I never estimated three wins, but I knew it was going to be hard for the state of the organization at the time. I knew we were going to have to go through it and take it on the chin if we were going to do it right. We could have put a Band-Aid on things and acted like it was cool and then paid for it later, and I didn’t want to do that.”

Poles’ rebuild reaches another crucial juncture this week — his second NFL draft, in which the Bears pick at Nos. 9, 53, 61, 64, 103, 133, 136, 148, 218 and 258.

There are many questions about what the Bears — who still have key positions to fill on their offensive and defensive lines — should do at No. 9.

Will Poles zero in on an offensive tackle such as Peter Skoronski, Paris Johnson Jr. or Broderick Jones? Will Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter drop to the Bears because of his off-the-field issues? Will the Bears look at another defensive lineman? Or will they orchestrate another trade back in the first round for more picks?

What Poles does with his 10 picks over the three days comes with more pressure.

Because while Chicago fans might understand what a rebuild takes, they also know this truth: You lose 14 games and then trade the No. 1 pick you received for those losses? You had better make the most of the return.

A landmark move

So much of Poles’ first year on the job has required patience and restraint.

Patience as he took over a mess of a roster and an unfavorable salary-cap situation in January 2022. As he tore down that roster and traded some of the Bears’ biggest defensive stars. As he watched the team that was left struggle to a franchise-record 14 losses. As he steadfastly stuck to big-picture solutions rather than quick fixes in free agency while building his negotiating skills.

Poles’ approach has solicited descriptions of steadiness and calm from those who have worked around him, including coach Matt Eberflus.

But in Poles’ Halas Hall office March 10, that patience was wearing thin.

After the Bears determined they were going to stick with Justin Fields rather than draft a quarterback, Poles’ original idea was to move from No. 1 to 2 through a trade with the Houston Texans and then from 2 to 9 though a trade with the Panthers. But that move wasn’t panning out on the Texans’ end.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Poles said. “I was really kind of aggravated. Within those hours I was pacing all over the place. I was driving my assistant nuts, nonstop moving, kind of edgy.”

Then the “highly motivated” Panthers offered Moore — a quality teammate and a young, proven producer to help Fields — in the package of two first-rounders and two second-rounders. Poles, who was in his office with assistant GM Ian Cunningham, senior vice president and general counsel Cliff Stein and director of football administration Matt Feinstein, was ready to make the move.

It was a huge moment for Poles. Along with adding a No. 1 receiver, he armed the organization with more crucial draft capital. But the relief didn’t come for a few more days, until Moore had passed his physical at Halas Hall.

“Even today, I’m still waiting for someone like a bad dream to rip it back out, like it’s not going through,” Poles said.

With the deal done, Poles zeroed in on free agency and now the draft, ahead of which he seems comfortable despite the understanding of its magnitude.

He didn’t have a first-round pick last year but he was “really, really happy” with his team’s preparation and how it played out.

After a year, the Bears look as if they have a sure success in second-round safety Jaquan Brisker and have seen good promise from second-round cornerback Kyler Gordon and fifth-round left tackle Braxton Jones. The jury is still out on others, such as third-round wide receiver Velus Jones Jr.

Poles said he was glad he got an opportunity to understand what trading back looks like — he did it four times on Day 3 last year — and how the extra picks acquired in such trades can help.

And he thinks his group is even more prepared to make the right picks this year, especially with a coaching staff that stayed largely intact from Years 1 to 2.

“That first year we talked about scheme fits and culture fits, but having a year under your belt with your O-line coach, your D-line coach, your secondary coach, the coordinators, you start to see what really fits,” Poles said. “What types of players — both personality, intelligence, all of those things — what fits? What do you have to have?”

Making the right choices will help the Bears on what Poles has made clear is a long climb.

Fighting the pressure

Poles figures he should pick up a hobby of some sort as he learns how to handle the most stressful parts of being an NFL GM — “the unknown and the sudden change and the gray,” he said.

He started going to Libertyville’s X-Golf, an indoor golf simulator. He doesn’t have four or five hours to play a round on the course, so he gets in nine holes in an hour there. He also enjoys watching his son, Mason, and daughter, Jordyn, play sports.

And he talks to a sports psychologist every two weeks for a half-hour.

“Just to get things off my chest,” Poles said. “You just feel refreshed after, which is big, and it has really shown me the value of that for our players too. And our staff. My kids, my wife, everybody.”

While a portion of the fan base spent the last two months of the 2022 season gladly absorbing Bears losses in the name of a higher draft pick, it wasn’t that simple for Poles.

The description Poles used in January was “like part of your football soul gets ripped out.”

The Bears went the final 76 days of the season without a victory. Poles watched Fields break free for some mind-boggling runs while rushing for 1,143 yards, but he also watched his quarterback get pummeled for 55 sacks behind an offensive line Poles constructed. The dagger-to-the-heart moments were frequent, one of the most memorable when Fields injured his non-throwing shoulder on a designed run late in a close game against the Atlanta Falcons and then threw an interception to seal a 27-24 loss. Watching from the Atlanta press box, Poles and his Bears crew clearly were upset.

Poles hated the losses and angry rides home, going so far as to tell reporters that he couldn’t immediately appreciate the Bears getting the No. 1 pick because he was still reeling from ending the season with a 10th straight loss.

“Because I felt how hard our guys were playing and some of the games we were in, I was just ready for that breakthrough,” Poles said. “And when you don’t get that satisfaction enough, it really hurts.”

But Poles, whose playing career as an offensive lineman ended when he was cut from Bears training camp in 2008, also understood the climb in more ways than one.

His first couple of years after joining the Kansas City Chiefs personnel department in 2009 were filled with busywork and errands. Driving players to and from the airport. Taking them to the doctor.

When he received a scouting assignment, it wasn’t exactly high profile — Idaho and Montana.

“They sent me out to the least sexiest place to scout, which was funny,” Poles said.

It turned out it was a good time to cover the area. Boise State, quarterbacked then by Kellen Moore, had wide receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis go in the second and third rounds in 2011 and two first rounders, Shea McClellin and Doug Martin, among six players the following year. Montana had cornerback Trumaine Johnson go in the third round in 2012.

During that period, Poles began to get a taste for sorting through different types of players and people to shape a roster. The drive to be an NFL GM kicked in not long after as he watched the Chiefs climb from worst to first while working in scouting and personnel under GMs Scott Pioli, John Dorsey and Brett Veach. The Chiefs went from 2-14 in 2012 to Super Bowl champions after the 2019 season.

He longed to recreate that rebuild in a new place but also understood he couldn’t bring the way it was done in Kansas City, Mo., to a place like Chicago.

“It has to be done a different way,” Poles said. “It’s not going to be a cookie-cutter setup. There’s a level of philosophy, a level of feel and instinct that goes with it.”

Enter the 2022 Bears, whose roster and salary-cap situation from the Ryan Pace era required a huge cleanup.

Before he took the job last January, Poles studied big-market teams that had pressure to win and noted how “quick fixes” affected them down the road. He has kept that research in mind over the last year as he watched the losses pile up, traded defensive stars Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith and exercised restraint in free agency.

“If I just fight the pressure for a long enough time, really in this three-year span, and build it the right way, I feel really confident we can get over the hump,” Poles said. “But again it’s fighting the urge of the instant gratification, the short-term hit that makes us feel good in the offseason but doesn’t make us feel good a year or two from now. So I’m really trying to stay disciplined with that.”

Staying steady

New Bears President Kevin Warren didn’t officially start his job until Monday, but he was around Halas Hall enough over the previous few months to get a feel for how Poles works, especially watching him in the lead-up to the trade.

And the anxious pacing that one March day aside, Warren was struck by Poles’ poise and ability to communicate. He called it “just incredible” to watch.

“He is not only smart. He’s intelligent,” Warren said. “He has a high IQ, has a high EQ. He’s thorough. He’s diligent. He’s methodical. And he’s unflappable. Because anytime when you handle these trades, especially when you have the No. 1 pick and make these determinations, it’s an emotional roller coaster. So he’s passionate but he’s not emotional.”

Poles joined the Bears with a clear vision about how he wanted to initiate his rebuild, but like anybody’s first year on a job, there have been areas of learning and growth. Poles said he has grown the most in understanding how to delegate, letting go of some of the tasks he did in Kansas City so he can handle the daily challenges that require him to think on his feet.

He was in the room for contract negotiations in Kansas City, but he needed to learn the nuances to hashing out deals. So he leaned on Stein, who has been with the Bears since 2002, to help as Feinstein got up to speed.

“(Stein) can hear language. He understands time,” Poles said. “Knowing when to say, ‘No, we’re good. You can move on.’ Calling bluffs.”

Going into his second offseason, Poles and his staff researched agents to understand when and how they did deals and what those contracts looked like for younger and older players. They studied old deals to assess when they should and shouldn’t take risks.

Along with Cunningham, Stein and Feinstein, Poles noted he has valued the input of co-directors of player personnel Jeff King and Trey Koziol and director of football analytics Krithi Chandrakasan.

“I like hearing different opinions, and yet everyone respects each other enough where it never gets too loud or a distraction or too many opinions,” Poles said.

Some of the negotiations — and Poles’ decisions to err on the side of discipline — have meant the Bears have gone without players they might have liked to sign.

  • Smith, working without an agent last summer, became so disillusioned with the Bears’ offer for a contract extension that he publicly requested a trade. Poles stood by what he believed was a fair-value contract and eventually orchestrated a trade of the Bears’ best defensive player to the Baltimore Ravens midseason.

  • Poles noted the Bears offered a new contract this offseason to David Montgomery, but the running back simply decided to move on to the Detroit Lions. The Bears signed D’Onta Foreman instead.

  • The Bears also made offers to at least a couple of the bigger-name defensive linemen and offensive tackles in free agency this year, including Dre’Mont Jones and Mike McGlinchey, but stuck to their valuations while those players went elsewhere.

Add those unfulfilled outcomes to the trade of a second-round pick for wide receiver Chase Claypool — a deal that as of now doesn’t look great — and there have been some bumps in Poles’ first year-plus.

But the Bears might have hit the mark in other deals, particularly if 2023 free-agent signings such as linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards and defensive end DeMarcus Walker become leaders of the defense. Or guard Nate Davis helps bolster the offensive line. Or Moore produces like he did in Carolina to help an ascending Fields.

All the while Poles has stuck to his principles of restraint and patience.

“Negotiations moving forward after two years of a track record, we have trends,” Poles said. “You know we are going to be disciplined, and we’re going to hit a mark and if it goes way past that, we’re going to be out and we’re going to move to the next thing.”

The next thing now is one very important draft.

Poles’ roster teardown led to 14 losses, which led to the No. 1 draft pick, which led to weeks of negotiations, which led to that crucial decision in Poles’ Halas Hall office to trade with the Panthers.

In order to make that long chain of events worth it, Poles has to make the right moves in the draft, starting this week and continuing in 2024 with two first-round picks. And then he has to sell those decisions — and how they fit into the Bears’ championship plans — to the fans, who very likely are going to have to ride with the Bears through more bumps in 2023.

Eberflus expects steadiness as Poles dives in.

“I just like his approach,” Eberflus said. “It’s very methodical. It’s logical. And it’s transparent. That’s what he’s done throughout the course of it, and not only with me, with the whole coaching staff. Talking through free agency with them, talking through the draft and the moves that he’s going to make and potentially make. And when you have clarity with that, with your entire staff like that, it brings a calmness and everybody is on the same plane in terms of where we want to go with the vision of our football team.”

If that vision unfolds the way Poles hopes, he’ll have to get used to seeing his face on TV a lot more.