The NFL world is converging upon Indianapolis this week, where all 32 teams will watch 319 of the top college athletes show off their talents at the NFL Combine.
The draft begins April 27, but the evaluation process for scouting departments has been ongoing for months. It will take another key step this week in Indianapolis when teams have the chance to meet with hundreds of players.
Bears general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus will address the media for the first time since early January. The Bears hold all the cards in the upcoming draft. With the No. 1 overall pick, and no glaring need for a coveted quarterback prospect, the Bears could be shopping the pick for the best available return. Any quarterback-needy team should have Poles’ number on speed dial.
Poles and Eberflus won’t tip their hand during their media sessions this week, but it will be relevant to hear what they have to say about the draft and about the upcoming free-agency period.
Here are four burning questions for the Bears’ top football men.
1. Could Will Anderson or Jalen Carter be game-changers?
It’s no secret that the Bears’ defensive line was the worst in the league last year. Alabama defensive end Will Anderson and Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter appear to be the top defensive prospects available.
Poles’ opinion on those two players matters. In fact, it’s crucial. If he believes either player could be a generational-type talent, that would significantly lessen the chance that he trades down very far. Neither player is likely to drop out of the top four or five picks.
If Poles views Anderson and Carter as great players, but not necessarily that much better than the No. 2 players at their positions, then anything is game.
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2. What do they think of QBs Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud?
All trade-down conversations are working on the assumption that the Bears are sticking with quarterback Justin Fields for the immediate future. In the NFL, it’s never safe to assume anything. The chances the Bears draft a quarterback first overall and look to trade Fields are slim, but they’re not nonexistent.
Bryce Young won the Heisman trophy in 2021 and threw for 79 touchdown passes in two seasons as the starting quarterback at Alabama. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud totaled 85 touchdown passes over the same two seasons. Both are potential top draft picks this spring.
Could either one be a better pro quarterback than Fields? Would it be worth taking such a gamble?
It all comes down to what Poles and Eberflus truly think of Fields, as well as what they think of the other available options.
3. Where will the spending spree be directed?
Poles has been clear in cautioning that he’s not going to spend all of his $98 million in 2023 available salary cap space.
“We’ve got to stay sound in free agency,” Poles said in January. “I know everyone’s talking about how much money we have and we’re just going to go crazy. We’re going to be sound so that we get the right players in here and we get good value.”
Still, even if he spent only half the $98 million in 2023 salary, that would be more money than the vast majority of NFL teams have available. Entering combine week, only seven teams have more than $30 million of space available for next season.
The Bears will spend money in March. The bigger question is what positions is Poles putting a premium on. Defensive tackle? Defensive end? Offensive tackle? Wide receiver?
4. What is Poles’ philosophy on extending homegrown talent?
The Bears have several young stars who are eligible to sign extensions this year. Tight end Cole Kmet, receiver Darnell Mooney and cornerback Jaylon Johnson are all entering the final year of their rookie contracts in 2023. Running back David Montgomery can become a free agent in a matter of days.
At this point, Montgomery is likely to either walk away or face the franchise tag.
But for the three 2020 draft picks, how big of a priority is it to re-sign them before the 2023 season? Poles has yet to hand out a big-time extension. The only example we have of Poles trying to extend a homegrown player was the failed contract talks between Poles and linebacker Roquan Smith, which ended with Poles trading Smith.
Poles’ desire to build his team through the draft is important and vital, but he also has to selectively choose which of those draft picks he wants to keep around long term.
Is he ready to lock those three up now? Or do they have more to prove in 2023 first?
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