Ryan Poles arrived in January and immediately started to tear down the Bears’ roster in Phase 1 of a lengthy rebuild.
A big part of that tearing down process included a gutting of a once-formidable defensive front. Poles released defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, traded Khalil Mack, and let Bilal Nichols and Akiem Hicks walk.
The Mack trade made sense, given the edge rusher’s age and the Bears’ rebuilding status.
The other three decisions were met with at least some form of skepticism as the Bears were left with a relatively thin defensive front.
All three former Bears eventually found new homes. Nichols signed with the Las Vegas Raiders early in free agency while Goldman landed in Atlanta, and Hicks went ring chasing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bears’ plan to bolster their interior front with Larry Ogunjobi fell through due to a failed physical. So Poles went to Plan B and signed Justin Jones to be the critical three-technique in head coach Matt Eberflus’ defense.
While some were skeptical of Poles’ plan, Tuesday showed the Bears’ new general manager’s moves may have been the right ones.
Goldman, who sat out the 2020 COVID season and wasn’t himself last year, informed the Falcons he would be retiring Tuesday. The 28-year-old had an underrated career in Chicago, but Poles’ move to cut him and save the Bears’ $7 million in salary cap was the right move at the time. Goldman’s retirement further proves the Bears parted ways with him at the right time.
Then, there’s Nichols. Many fans wondered why Poles would choose to give Jones a two-year, $12 million contract instead of paying Nichols, who signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Raiders.
The truth is that Poles likely felt Jones was a better fit for the three-technique than Nichols, who, while versatile, was inconsistent during his four seasons in Chicago. A fifth-round pick in 2018, Nichols became a key member of the Bears’ defensive line but might have reached his peak.
On Tuesday, the Raiders announced they placed Nichols on the Physically Unable To Perform List with a knee injury. We don’t know the severity of Nichols’ injury, and given that it’s the start of training camp, there’s a good chance he’ll return before Week 1.
However, what Goldman’s retirement and Nichols’ injury show is that Poles was right not to sink money into players he viewed as either unreliable, inconsistent, or too expensive to be part of a ground floor rebuild.
The decision to let Hicks walk can and probably should be scrutinized. But as talented as Hicks is, he also has missed 20 games in the last three seasons. Moreover, given that Hicks was weighing offers from Super Bowl contenders, the Bears likely would have had to overpay to bring him back. That’s a decision that makes zero sense for a franchise starting from scratch.
The Bears start training camp in a week. Jones will anchor an interior defensive line relying on players like Angelo Blackson, Mario Edwards Jr., and LaCale London to help compensate for the loss of Hicks, Goldman, and Nichols.
Perhaps that group lacks juice and production this season. Perhaps not. But the Bears will be better suited in the long run, having not spent the money to retain Hicks and Nichols. Goldman, given his contract, was always going to be released.
Poles inherited arguably the worst roster situation in the NFL. He had to make some difficult decisions to set the Bears up for next offseason. Letting Hicks and Nichols walk and cutting Goldman instead of trading him were moves that were fair to scrutinize. But Tuesday's news shows Poles’ plan deserves the opportunity to get off the ground before being criticized.