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Emma’s Five Takeaways from NFL Draft: Bears continue to build through Ryan Poles’ blueprint

10 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — At the conclusion of the 2022 NFL season, the first year that Halas Hall was led by rookie general manager Ryan Poles, the Bears had control of this offseason. They boasted the most salary cap space of any team in the league and the No. 1 overall pick.

Poles began this pivotal offseason with a blockbuster deal of the top pick in early March, landing the Bears the No. 9 overall pick, a 2024 first-round selection, a pair of second-round slots and wide receiver DJ Moore. He invested the available salary cap space in impact players like Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, the leading names to a reshaped veteran core. And then came this opportunity with the NFL Draft, one in which Poles struck with 10 selections that offer promise for the Bears’ future.

The Bears have improved considerably since the final whistle of their season finale on Jan. 9, setting themselves to become a more competitive team in 2023. More importantly, they are in position to keep building for the future.

“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Poles said on Saturday night after completing his second draft leading the Bears’ front office. “I wanted to get bigger, faster. I wanted to find areas that we needed to get better and put players that can impact the game in those spaces and get better, and I think we’ve done that. 

“It’s a long journey in terms of getting to the top. I don’t know if you ever get the perfect roster, but that’s what we chase all the time. But I think we’ve done a good job taking the proper steps to improve our football team.”

Here are five takeaways from the Bears’ 2023 NFL Draft:

1. Draft and develop

One year ago, the way-too-early mock drafts wouldn’t have projected Darnell Wright as the No. 10 overall pick in 2023. It’s a reminder that development is rarely linear, and prospects are never a finished product.

Wright earned his place as one of the most coveted tackle prospects in this draft class after a strong showing as a senior at Tennessee.

“Somebody that was able to look at himself in the mirror and truly see that his potential had a chance to be realized,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said of Wright. 

“Really proud of the steps that he took.”

But the Bears believe there’s even better in store from Wright as he arrives to the NFL with great expectations on his shoulders. Poles and his brass were willing to take chances on players who are still raw but promising prospects as they enter this league.

On Day 2 of the draft Friday night, the Bears selected three players for their defense who were each prized prospects coming out of high school – and each struggled to fulfill their full potential in college.

Florida defensive lineman Gervon Dexter Sr., the No. 53 overall pick in the second round, posted just 4.5 sacks over his three seasons with the Gators. He was a promising prospect who proved to be inconsistent in college. Miami cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, for whom the Bears traded up five spots to No. 56 overall, was a premier recruit to Georgia who transferred to the Hurricanes’ program after losing out on a starting role. Stevenson said that decision shaped him as a prospect. South Carolina defensive lineman Zacch Pickens was the No. 9 overall high school player in 2019 but never dominated in college.

There’s undeniable talent in these three prospects, and the Bears took notice of that in their scouting process. But these three selections from Day 2 each need development at the NFL level.

The Bears welcome that in selecting Dexter, Stevenson and Pickens. Poles sees tools to work with and driven individuals hoping to grow in Chicago.

“This is a game for big, fast, strong individuals,” Poles said. “Usually, the cream rises to the top.”

As a young scout in the Chiefs organization, Poles was tasked with scouting Memphis defensive lineman prospect Dontari Poe for the 2012 draft. 

Poe had just three sacks over 23 games during his two seasons in college, but Poles was willing to look past the lack of production. The Chiefs made Poe the No. 11 overall pick in that draft, and he became a two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

“I watched all the plays really trying to see how did he affect the game, punching the pocket, eating up two blocks while other guys can run free,” Poles recalled. “So, that goes into play. Like I say, there’s a level of multiplier where they can help other people as well, free other individuals up to make plays.”

The Bears host rookie minicamp starting Friday at Halas Hall. It’s the beginning of an opportunity to develop in the NFL.

In taking a chance on these prospects, the Bears found players eager to work.

“I’m ready to learn and grow,” Pickens said. “I still haven’t reached my potential yet. 

“I’m ready to learn from everybody in the organization.”

2. Wright hopes to be a building block

Wright was a five-star recruit to Tennessee in 2019 who endured the struggles of that program over two challenging seasons. At the end of his sophomore season, Wright recalls a week where the Volunteers’ players didn’t have any coaches in their football facility.

Tennessee enjoyed a breakthrough return to prominence last season, at one point reaching No. 1 in the country and finishing 11-2 overall. Wright was lauded as a key figure in the Volunteers’ turnaround.

“I think the fact that him being one of the guys who chose to stay here, I think that shows how he cares about the place that he’s at,” Heupel said. “And it also shows that he cares about the guys he is in the locker room with. He has an unbelievably tight bond with his teammates.”

Wright did not transfer out of Tennessee during an era of college football in which the transfer portal offers a way out. Instead, he embraced helping the Volunteers rebuild. 

Now, Wright hopes to be that player for the Bears. It’s part of the makeup that made him the No. 10 overall pick in this draft – the key investment for this franchise in a pivotal offseason.

“I embrace expectations upon myself,” Wright said. “I have expectations upon myself bigger than just football. I have expectations to take care of my family. I don’t know what my role for the team is but whatever that role is I’m going to take it full on and do my best I can.”

The Bears selected Wright expecting him to become the team’s long-term fit at right tackle. He’s a physical presence at 6-foot-5 and 333 pounds, an imposing player who’s also light on his feet. Wright fills a key void for Chicago’s offensive line.

The Bears anticipate Wright’s presence will also be felt inside their locker room as a young team looks towards its future with hope.

“He just fits the mold of what we’re trying to be,” Bears co-director of player personnel Trey Koziol said.

3. Roschon has ‘pillar’ potential

Roschon Johnson was an All-State quarterback in the state of Texas who was asked to convert as a running back for the Longhorns’ program. He became a powerful rusher who was asked to play a backup role behind star Bijan Robinson, the No. 8 overall pick to the Falcons in this draft.

Johnson never made any complaints, and he didn’t leave Texas for the transfer portal. Instead, he embraced the opportunity and fought for his team.

“I never really viewed myself as like a backup,” Johnson said. “Regardless of who was getting the carries, I tried to prepare myself as if I was the starter. I didn’t really let the perspective of me being a backup have an effect on me. 

“I think it paid off.”

The Bears selected Johnson early in the fourth round on Saturday and tabbed him as a potential starter in their backfield. 

Johnson is a tough rusher who totaled 554 yards and five touchdowns last season for the Longhorns. He was often lost in the shuffle as Robinson rose as the clear top running back in this draft class.

But the Bears were drawn to Johnson, his potential and his character. 

“He’s someone we really feel can probably become a pillar in this organization for a really long time,” said Bears southwest scout John Syty. “I feel really strongly about this guy.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever written a guy with higher character than him. This is a special, special human being.”

Johnson will compete in the Bears’ backfield alongside Khalil Herbert and D’Onta Foreman. There’s an opportunity to earn a role after David Montgomery left for the Lions on a three-year deal this offseason.

4. Scott’s speed threat

New Bears wide receiver Tyler Scott, a fourth-round pick to the team, was participating as a track star in the Junior Olympics before he reached the age of 10. He was once clocked at a 4.29 time on the 40-yard dash at the University of Cincinnati.

The Bears were drawn to that speed threat that Scott brings to their offense. Ten of his 14 career touchdowns in college went for 30 yards or more.

“He can really take the top off,” said Bears area scout Ryan Cavanaugh. “Justin (Fields) is going to like throwing to him deep. 

“He’s really good with the deep ball, getting open deep as well as fighting for the ball deep.”

But Scott isn’t simply a player who just excels running in a straight line. He has taken the speed in his game and made it only part of his arsenal.

The Bears were impressed at how Scott has ascended as a route runner and become a crafty wide receiver. He had 54 receptions for 899 yards and nine touchdowns in a breakthrough junior season with the Bearcats.

“Speed is my No. 1 thing that I think pops off the film,” Scott said. “But I always like to stress not just that but just how I get open as well.”

5. Missing an edge

At the end of Friday night’s second and third rounds, Poles said the Bears came “spot on” in matching the best player available at the top of their draft board with positional needs.

But the exception to that was at the edge rusher role. The Bears only signed veteran defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker as a true pass rusher this offseason and did not select a single edge rusher in this draft. Chicago’s defense had just 20 sacks in 17 games last season and generated pressure on 15.9% of opposing dropbacks. 

The Bears may be forced to look back to the open market to improve their pass rush. Leonard Floyd, the No. 9 overall pick to Chicago in 2016, remains an unrestricted free agent. Yannick Ngakoue, a seven-year NFL veteran with 65 career sacks, also is an option for the Bears. 

“You want to fix everything immediately, but it’s got to work the right way,” Poles said. “The right players got to be there that fit our scheme. They want to be here. So, we can’t fix everything at a high level in one swoop. We are aware of our strengths and weaknesses and we’re going to be opportunistic. That’s why we’ve done what we’ve done, and we still have flexibility to do what we need to do to improve in different areas.”

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