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Ryan Poles has not been shy when addressing the lack of available draft capital and the five choices the new Chicago Bears general manager has inherited to build the list.
“Obviously you want a lot of choices. But that’s just the hand we got,” Poles said at the recent NFL scouting. “We want to be open about how we can create more choices. And we want to be wise about that.”
Poles had a wild card to improve that hand, and he played it Thursday. GM’s first major move in Chicago came in the form of trading six-time Pro Bowler Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers in exchange for a second-round pick in 2022 and a sixth-round pick in 2023, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Chargers will also take on Mack’s entire contract, according to Schefter, who has three years left and payouts of $ 17.75 million in 2022, $ 22.9 million in ’23 and $ 23.25 million in ’24.
That’s what happens when a new regime takes over a team that has not lived up to expectations.
On the eve of the 2018 season, Chicago sent two first-round picks, a third-round pick and a sixth-round pick to the Raiders in exchange for Mack. Shortly after the trade, the Bears made him the highest paid defender in NFL history.
The Bears reached the playoffs in 2018 when a dominant defense – led by Mack – fueled a regular season of 12-4, but they lost at home to the Philadelphia Eagles in the wildcard round. They managed it again two years later, but none of the trips resulted in a victory. The Bears had an elite defense with no offense to match.
Mack, who has been slowed by several injuries, reached the Pro Bowl in 2019 and ’20, but did not play up to his dominance in 2018, where he had 12.5 sacks, or 2016, when he won Defender of the Year.
The 31-year-old defender still possesses discriminating qualities that will affect the Chargers, but the size of Mack’s contract and a foot injury that limited him to seven games in 2021 were the catalysts behind the Bears’ decision to move on.
And now, after a 6-11 season in 2021, the Bears’ new leadership has entered the rebuilding field by relieving a player at the back end of his career.
Some might criticize Chicago for abandoning Mack in exchange for just two draft picks considering how good he’s been at his best, but the returns the Bears received point to how Mack is valued by other franchises. Chicago had North for $ 27 million in vacancy before trading with Mack. It’s not like the Bears should remedy their cap situation by taking a discount on what they could get in return for Mack.
The 2022 version of Chicago’s defense is not going to look like the 2018 version. The building blocks are different, centered around young players like linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Jaylon Johnson. Instead of hoping for Mack to return to form as Matt Eberflus shifts Chicago’s plan from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense, Bears wiped future financial obligations out of the books and began showing off a shift – one that will now focus on rebuilding quarterback Justin Fields, who they hope will one day become championship-caliber.
What happened Thursday means a rebuilding in Chicago. No matter how the team tries to sell its goals for the 2022 season, the Bears are taking a step back this year to be able to fight for the playoffs, perhaps as early as 2023. And this may only be the first move of many, as 25 players queuing to hit free agency next week.
Trading Mack cleared $ 6 million in cap space and gave Chicago another draft for April. But even with an expected $ 32 million in salary cap, the Bears have a wealth of gaps to fill. And according to Poles, having as much working capital as he wants to build a team will not shift the Bears’ focus on how to maximize the second and third waves of free agency.
Expect Chicago to give up expensive free agents like Amari Cooper to fill a big void with the recipient and instead opt for cheaper options with players willing to sign veteran minimums or two-year contracts worth up to $ 6 million . And then, of course, there is always the draft, which seems to be how the Poles want to build this team in the coming years.
Poles completed a long-term game by deciding to cut bait on an expensive veteran who does not fit into the team’s changing identity. While the Bears still have star-keeper rusher Robert Quinn under contract, taking a step back now and playing the long game centered on building around Fields instead of defense may be what the Bears need to return to respectability before later.