INDIANAPOLIS – Of course, the story for every team in the NFL this week in Indianapolis has been the 2023 draft, but right now Bears general manager Ryan Poles has a much bigger issue to deal with.
There are still almost two months until the draft kicks off April 27, and while Poles is already knee-deep studying the top college prospects and talking to multiple teams about potential draft choice trades, free agency begins in just 12 days, the biggest deals for the best players are being negotiated right now with all the top agents in Indianapolis to represent their players, and anyone who knows anything about the NFL knows Poles has far and away the most money to spend.
The bottom line is that what he does over the next two months is going to have a huge impact on and may perhaps even dictate Poles’ success or failure as the GM of the Bears.
The Bears aren’t going to the Super Bowl next season, and it’s highly unlikely they’ll be in the playoffs. But with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and about $100 million to spend in free agency, Poles does have the assets to vastly improve his team this year and possibly have them ready to make a playoff run next year.
But if he starts next year with the No. 1 pick and the most cap space in the league, he could lose his job.
Where his focus has to be at the moment is to find out how much better he can get right now via free agency because it will have a huge impact on how he uses his draft capital in April.
And, sadly, with that comes some bad news. It’s not a crisis or a disaster, but it is quite disappointing that while there is much to be excited about in this year’s draft, this year’s free-agent class is one of the least impressive we’ve seen in years.
What the Bears need to accomplish their goals isn’t just to get better on the defensive and offensive lines and at receiver, they need Pro Bowl-caliber players in all three spots. Free agents are much easier to evaluate than draft choices, and it doesn’t look like there are any sure-fire Pro Bowlers to choose from there.
Defensive tackle Daron Payne of the Washington Commanders was the Bears’ best bet, and the Commanders franchise tagged him Friday, taking him off the board.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ Javon Hargrave is now Poles’ best free-agent option at defensive tackle, and he could be an excellent addition, but he is 30 years old. Many great defensive tackles make a difference well into their 30s, but it is a risk for the money he will command.
There are a number of interesting edge rushers available as free agents, but none younger than their early- to mid-30s who’ve shown anything special yet.
The Patriots’ Jakobi Meyers, Kansas City’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman and the Packers’ Allen Lazard would be upgrades for the Bears at wide receiver, but they are all No. 2s or No. 3s, and none is likely to be a difference maker.
Offensive right tackle Kaleb McGary from the Falcons, Giants running back Saquon Barkley and Bucs linebacker Lavonte David would all be nice additions and are worth considering, but the Bears probably would have to overpay for McGary or Barkley.
The Bears can get better via free agency, and hopefully will, but they can’t commit to players via the draft until they know how free agency has changed them.
And the smartest thing Poles can do right now is to be patient with his money and try to have the most to spend in free agency again next year when, hopefully, he’ll be closer to ready to compete, and the talent will be much deeper.
• Hub Arkush is the senior Bears analyst for Shaw Media and ShawLocal.com.