Ryan Poles

Ryan Poles offers insight into Justin Fields trade, Caleb Williams lessons

The Bears GM sat down with NBC Sports Chicago to pull back the curtain on his QB decisions and offer insight into how he'll find the next face of the franchise

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ORLANDO -- A little over 12 months ago, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles was fretting about the No. 1 overall pick he had in his back pocket and how best to utilize it to accelerate his rebuild.

Three hundred and eighty-two days after Poles sent the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft to the Carolina Panthers, he once again finds himself with the No. 1 pick. But this time, there's a sense of calm as Poles prepares to select the Bears' future signal-caller with the top selection.

“This one, you feel a little bit more in control," Poles told NBC Sports Chicago during a sit down at the annual NFL league meeting in Orlando. "Last year, knowing how far we needed to go, like, just who was that trade going to be with? Is this really going to help our team take the next step? Or do you take the quarterback? But like did you see enough from Justin [Fields]? Just a lot more questions. I feel like this is lining up really well where there is less anxiety. But at the same time we are really putting pressure on ourselves to continue to do the work. Because there is always some curveball that’s going to pop up out of nowhere. You want to stay ready and have a Plan A, B, and C."

Lining up well might be an understatement.

Poles has quickly flipped the Bears' roster over. The trade that sent last year's No. 1 pick to the Panthers has netted him wide receiver DJ Moore, offensive tackle Darnell Wright, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, an extra fourth-round pick that he flipped for wide receiver Keenan Allen, and what turned out to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft which the Bears will presumably use to select USC star quarterback Caleb Williams.

This is Poles and the Bears' moment. The gravity of what is and what could have been isn't lost on the third-year general manager.

“We’re super fortunate," Poles said. "What keeps me up at night is really reflecting on what – what would this look like if some of the things didn’t line up? If Houston doesn’t throw the Hail Mary to win that game when they really didn’t need to [in Week 18 of the 2022 season]. You know, Carolina coming up short in a few games that gives you the first overall pick back. Then, what we believe is a talented draft class to kind of match where our picks are. We’re really, really fortunate and things are lining up the right way.

"That’s going to be on paper. It’s got to all come together on the field and result in wins but it’s allowed us to do some really cool things and I don’t know what it would look like without some of those things happening the way that they did. Like, there’s so much work to do be done. There still is. But it would be double the amount of work to get this team to where it needs to be."

Call it fate. Call it luck. But the events that unfolded gave Poles the ticket to draft the best quarterback in a loaded class. It also forced him to make the hard decision to trade quarterback Justin Fields.

The decision to trade Fields had many layers. Poles is quick to point out the contract question attached to Fields. The 25-year-old is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and a team will need to decide by May if it wants to pick up his fifth-year option for $25 million. After that, a big-money payday would be on the horizon for any team that views Fields as a franchise quarterback. The Bears' timeline and that timeline didn't match. Poles wants more runway to build a winning roster around a quarterback on an affordable deal.

But the contract wasn't the only thing that led to Poles deciding to move on.

“I think the efficiency in the pass game," Poles said. "Again, I’m well aware, you know, before I got here and our first year, it was really challenging, right? Like there just wasn’t a ton around him, which is difficult and really unfortunate, too. But also, just like, when you look at a guy who is so explosive as a runner, you also have to ask yourself, like, longevity-wise, being able to hold up. You needed – just like that timeline. Everyone has got a timeline to become more efficient as a passer, and that kind of comes into play.

"There was progress, but then when you kind of pair up before you have to get to a contract conversation, it becomes really, really difficult. I think in the right situation, he can continue to grow and find that extra timeline in whatever way and with whatever team. But I do believe there is a higher ceiling that he can reach. It’s just when you’re trying to build this thing up and create that structure, it gets really, really difficult when that salary goes way, way up."

The moment the Bears landed the No. 1 pick from the Panthers, not a pick between two and five, was when it was over for Fields. Had the Panthers done what the Washington Commanders or New England Patriots did and backed into one or two extra wins, perhaps Poles would have made a different decision. At the very least, the calculus changes.

“You have a lot more clarity," Poles said of the No. 1 pick. "So that’s where that comes into play. Like [not having the No. 1 pick] would have been a tough situation. Like you don’t know who is going to be there and you can already see teams starting to maneuver that are in that situation. Either that quarterback that they had is gone or they are looking for the next guy, you can see them already maneuvering and doing things with picks, and there is really no guarantee. This allowed us to have a little bit more clarity.”

Poles initially expected to receive more offers for Fields. However, the market he expected never materialized. The Bears ended up trading Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a conditional 2025 sixth-round pick. Several other teams were involved, but none were willing to give up more than late Day 3 capital.

The lesser trade market for Fields was a product of the small number of teams looking for a 25-year-old quarterback with one year left on his rookie contract who isn't a proven commodity. It also illustrates how difficult it is for everyone to make heads or tails of what Fields is and what he can become.

“I think the pool was a lot smaller just in case of who feels like they are in line to draft versus who already has someone established. So I think that limited some of it," Poles said. "But I also think it’s probably a tough study too trying to figure out: is it him? Is it the situation? Did he not have enough around him? I just think it’s a really complicated dynamic set up? But you know there’s a lot of talent there as well. The main thing we haven’t talked about is you also have to answer the contract question too, the fifth-year option, because you’re at the end of that timeline.”

While Poles and the Bears were working on finding a trade partner for Fields, they were also deep in the evaluation process of a quarterback class with Williams, LSU's Jayden Daniels, North Carolina's Drake Maye, and Michigan's J.J. McCarthy.

In 2017, Poles was the Kansas City Chiefs' director of college scouting. During that offseason, the Chiefs' brain trust identified the ability and potential in quarterback Patrick Mahomes that few other teams saw. The Chiefs traded up to the No. 10 pick in the draft to secure Mahomes, and the rest is history.

As Poles and his staff wade through a deep pool of first-round talents, the lessons from how the Chiefs found Mahomes have helped shape the Bears' quarterback evaluation plan.

“First, the one thing that I think about was just the way we watch tape and evaluate," Poles said. "How can we set up the film so our eyes are on situations that match what the quarterback is going to see at the next level? Then, it’s the relationship piece in terms of making sure they fit the culture, they also have the resilience, the toughness, the mental toughness to go through those hard times, and that’s really spending a lot of time with the prospects to make sure they have those things.

"And sometimes it’s a projection. That’s why in some of these situations, I want to see guys go through some hard times and then reflect on that or what they learned from that. I think that’s important. Then, how we set up installing some mock game plans and have that person kind of spit it back to you like later in the day for some recall. I know guys learn differently so it’s not weighted to seriously because we have tools that can kind of help them but the way we are kind of doing the visits and also the way we are watching the tape is similar.”

New Bears passing game coordinator Thomas Brown has also played an integral role in the process of finding the face of the franchise. Brown spent last season as the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator. He played a vital role in the decision to draft Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall pick and has an intricate understanding of what went right and wrong both when evaluating the prospects and in Young's first season.

“Really valuable," Poles said of Brown. "Picking his brain about what are some things that they really liked in their process. If it’s going to a Pro Day, or if it’s a 30 visit, key indicators. What did you identify? What things did you think you missed? All the way to Player A comes in your building and what were some of the things that were maybe overwhelming where you wish you pulled that back? Were there too many voices? Not enough voices? So he has been really helpful with sharing some of the things they went through."

All of that has led the Bears to Williams.

The Bears arrived at the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine with Williams atop their board, but spending time with the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner was critical to ensure he fit in every aspect, not just on tape.

After a visit at the combine, a three-day trip to Williams' Pro Day, which included a dinner with his teammates, and countless interviews with coaches and teammates, the Bears got a good sense of who Williams is as a person and leader.

“I think how he prioritizes everything that’s going on in his life with the NIL," Poles said when asked what has struck him about Williams off the field. "Also with how he’s bringing his teammates together. You have situations where the guy is driving a sweet car, and he’s up in some penthouse with a really nice place in LA. You can isolate yourself and kind of be different than everyone else, but you feel like he’s bringing others along and kind of sharing what he has to kind of help bond the team together over the last few years. That’s important to see. It has been a cool kind of thing to unpack because it’s very different, right? You have to adjust your eyes a little bit.

"But at the same time, the main thing has got to be the main thing. There has got to be accountability. There has got to be intelligence. There has got to be a passion for the game. Some of those things, they are not going to change for how we try to identify the top level prospects.”

The accountability and resilience showed up when Poles traveled to South Bend to watch Williams' worst game as Trojan in a three-interception flop against Notre Dame.

While many on the outside viewed it as an indictment of Williams' ability to beat top-level defenses, Poles zeroed in on Williams' body language and leadership during a trying night for the Trojans. What Poles saw was a young quarterback who took his lumps and owned them. The performance was a credit to a Notre Dame defensive effort cooked up to stop Williams—something the Fighting Irish hadn't shown on film before.

That loss to Notre Dame and the subsequent four losses gave Williams a taste of adversity, which gave Poles and the Bears a vital and sometimes rare touchpoint in the quarterback evaluation process. Williams will face pressure and adversity as the face of the Bears' franchise. The Bears feel USC's 2023 season gave them a window into how Williams will handle the bumps along his NFL journey.

“In today’s world with college football and how you can transfer and move around, it’s really hard to take criticism," Poles said. "Then you kind of become blind to self-improvement – blind to 'I have a lot to learn.' Like there’s way more I got to get better at. I think those situations kind of open everyone’s eyes, including myself. But there’s always work to be done, there’s always a way to improve. I think through some of that discomfort and adversity, you realize that there’s a lot for me to learn and grow from.

“There have been quarterbacks in the past where they are undefeated for three years, they have a bunch of first round picks surrounding them at all times, so it’s a projection of how they handle discomfort, how they handle pressure. So seeing some of these guys go through hard times is important because now you can actually talk about it and listen to them kind of go back and, ‘OK, what can I kind of do to get better? How could I handle certain situations better?’ There are so many learning lessons from that. It just makes you feel comfortable where, if you’re in a situation like that, the kid is going to come out on the other side because if not they can crumble easily.”

As the Bears close the book on Fields and prepare to likely usher in the start of the Caleb Williams era, missteps the Bears made with Fields will provide the map of what to do right with Williams.

“I’ve been fortunate to see a couple different scenarios," Poles said when asked what he learned from what went wrong during Fields' time in Chicago. "I think the timing of this has allowed – I think rookies are in a bad situation if they are forced to be the reason why you are winning while they are experiencing all these new things at a high, high speed. So really just making sure there’s a supporting cast that can kind of have his back and bail him out of some of those games. Fortunately, we have good personnel on the offensive side and our defense is going to really be able to stay strong in those games where there might be some turnovers. There’s going to be adversity and you want a defense and skill guys and O-line to be able to have his back and kind of bail him out of things.”

Whoever Poles selects will enter into arguably the best situation for a No. 1 overall pick in NFL history.

Once Poles makes his selection, the anxiety that became clarity will crystalize into excitement about the bright future Poles' work and some NFL fate have created for a charter franchise that has spent decades waiting for this moment.

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