Whichever path Bears general manager Ryan Poles picks with the No. 1 choice in the upcoming draft, it’s an opportunity to upgrade a roster that badly needs it.
He most likely will be shopping the pick in the hope of landing an incredible trade package for it like the Dolphins got when they held the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 and didn’t plan to use it on a quarterback because they had Tua Tagovailoa. They knew someone out there would be desperate, though, and the 49ers called with an offer of two future first-rounders to move up from No. 12.
Through a couple of ensuing trades, the Dolphins ended up with the Nos. 6 and 18 picks and took wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and pass rusher Jaelan Phillips. Waddle topped 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons, and Phillips is second in that draft class with 15.5 sacks to begin his career.
Something like that, turning their extremely high pick into multiple pretty-high picks, is Poles’ dream scenario.
But keeping the pick is good, too. There’s nothing wrong with having first choice of all the talent in college football. When a team takes someone with the No. 1 overall pick, it envisions that player becoming a Hall of Famer.
If the Bears think Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson is a Myles Garrett-level talent, that’s worth hanging on to the pick.
But even then, Anderson likely would be available at No. 3 or 4, so perhaps the Bears could trade back slightly and still land him.
Given their dearth of top talent, don’t expect the Bears to trade down too far. Seven of the next eight teams behind them need a quarterback, so Poles better keep his phone charged. The Bears likely are looking at two tiers of players: the consensus top four picks if they stay high enough to take one of them and a group of players more likely to go between Nos. 6 and 9. Here’s a look at who they could land:
Bears’ best options with a top-four pick
The least likely thing the Bears will do with their first-round pick is take a quarterback. Justin Fields has made modest progress despite the Bears doing everything possible to slow him. First they put him through all the dysfunction of playing for Matt Nagy, then Poles surrounded him with completely inadequate offensive linemen and skill players.
Poles supported Fields during his news conference after the final game, but clearly left the door open to pounce on a quarterback.
“We’re gonna do the same as we’ve always done,” he said when asked if Fields would be his quarterback next season regardless of having the No. 1 pick. “We’re gonna evaluate the draft class, and I would have to be absolutely blown away to make that type of decision.”
Has any team ever drafted a player No. 1 overall and not been “blown away” by them?
A ton can change between now and the draft, but Alabama’s Bryce Young stands atop the list at quarterback, followed by Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis.
Young and Stroud were overwhelming passers. Young averaged 303.7 yards passing per game and threw for 79 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions over his last two seasons. Stroud, who took over the Buckeyes in 2021 after Fields left, put up even bigger numbers at 324.9 yards passing per game and 85 touchdowns with 12 interceptions over his two seasons as a starter.
Levis is far more of a projection. After transferring from Penn State, he averaged just 218 yards passing and threw 43 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions over his two seasons at Kentucky. But draft analysts are enamored with his arm strength, mechanics and 6-foot-3, 232-pound build — a more classic stature than Young at 6-foot, 194 pounds.
The team workouts and scouting combine will be crucial for all three of those quarterbacks as they compete to go No. 1.
The current non-quarterback contenders to go anywhere from first to fourth are Anderson and Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. And assuming the Bears are sticking with Fields, they have enormous needs at both of those positions.
That would make the quarterback-needy Colts, who pick fourth, the ideal trade partner. At No. 4, the Bears almost certainly could get Anderson or Carter.
The Bears had the NFL’s weakest pass rush this season with just 20 sacks in 17 games, and they aren’t locked into any of their starting defensive linemen financially. Even defensive tackle Justin Jones, Poles’ most expensive pickup in free agency last year, can be cut for a dead salary-cap hit of $2.5 million.
Rookie safety Jaquan Brisker led the team with four sacks. That should never happen.
The four defensive linemen who played the most snaps — Jones, Trevis Gipson, Al-Quadin Muhammad and fifth-round pick Dominique Robinson — combined for 8 1/2 sacks. There were 27 players across the league who had at least that many individually.
That’s why Anderson is appealing at No. 1 overall. He had seven sacks as a true freshman, then 17 1/2 in 2021 when he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He had 10 sacks in 13 games last season.
But the Bears have made clear that defensive tackle is essential to their defense, and Carter is ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s top-rated player regardless of position.
The only time Poles tried to spend significant money in free agency was on a three-year, $40.5 million offer to defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. When that fell through, he signed Jones for two years, $12 million. No one else got more than $4 million per year.
The Bears shifted Jones, against his preference, to defensive end late in the season — presumably to see whether he could move to that spot next season if they make a major addition in free agency or the draft.
Carter could be that acquisition. At 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, Carter had 18 1/2 sacks in the middle of Georgia’s line over the last three seasons. He fits the profile of what they want at the position.
Bears’ choices in second tier
Top-notch talent should still be available for the Bears if they trade down into the fifth-through-10th range. Recent Hall of Famers Brian Urlacher, Champ Bailey, LaDainian Tomlinson and Richard Seymour were picked in that part of the draft.
The most exciting player projected to go in that part of the draft is TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston. Like quarterback, that’s been a problematic position for the Bears. They recently went a whole decade between 1,000-yard receivers from Marty Booker to Brandon Marshall. The Bears have Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool, but that’s not enough.
Johnson is 6-foot-4, 193 pounds and broke out this season with 60 catches for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns.
Flash is fun, but the Bears still need some basics. Left tackle would be near the top of that list.
While it was a nice success story that the Bears developed fifth-round pick Braxton Jones into a starting left tackle, they could still look to upgrade. Ohio State’s Paris Johnson, Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski or Georgia’s Broderick Jones could impress Poles enough for him to reconfigure the line. If he drafts one of those two or signs a major free agent like the Chiefs’ Orlando Brown, the Bears could move Jones to right tackle.
Pass rusher is another need, and if the Bears don’t jump on Anderson in the top four, they could take Clemson’s Myles Murphy, Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson or Florida State’s Jared Verse.
The backup plan at defensive tackle if the Bears don’t draft Carter could be Clemson’s Bryan Bresee. Bresee is regarded as an excellent pass rusher and run stopper and had 15 tackles for loss over the last three seasons.
When Poles was pressed on priorities for building a roster, he listed “premium positions” beyond quarterback as pass rushers, offensive linemen and cornerbacks.
The Bears have a proven corner in Jaylon Johnson and just drafted Kyler Gordon in the second round. Both are 23 years old. While they definitely need a third viable starter, using a high draft pick at the position seems highly unlikely. If Poles is compelled, the top options are Georgia’s Kelee Ringo and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr.
Because there’s no clear choice at No. 1 for the Bears since they probably won’t take a quarterback, it leaves a wide range of possibilities as they look to trade back. It’s very possible they’ll trade back more than once.
They’re the most unpredictable team in the draft this year, and that’s great for Poles as he tries to keep the rest of the league guessing. The more uncertainty there is around his plans, the better his chance of landing a wildly desperate trade package that would accelerate his rebuild.