In his first season as Bears general manager, Ryan Poles didn't know what to expect out of the locker room when the team endured adversity. When talking to the media Tuesday at Halas Hall, Poles admitted as a GM, he worried about how the players would stick together through a losing stretch and if the group would start to fracture.
But, Poles was surprised and relieved when he didn't witness any finger pointing or selfish behavior as the season became challenging. What he did notice was players buying into the culture he and coach Matt Eberflus were establishing as well as enjoying their time with teammates.
"I think the biggest thing was when you have adversity like this and there is a lot of losing toward the end of the season, I was blown away by our guys' ability to stick together," Poles said. "They practiced with energy, and I think that's rare, but it speaks volumes on their character, how much they love the game and the buy-in that they have for the direction that we're going. So, want to start off by thanking them."
Poles also voiced his appreciation for Eberflus' ability to keep the locker room together and remain authentic in getting players locked in, enforcing his 24-hour rule and "attacking it week by week."
Throughout the 2022 season, Poles was also proud of the team's toughness on the field, saying: "I can't tell you how many coaches from the teams that we played called the next morning, or GMs, and said, 'you can feel your guys on tape. You can feel that the way that they play, they played the right way. Keep doing what you're doing. You're on the right path.'"
Montgomery's future: Fourth-year running back David Montgomery is set to be a free agent this offseason, but told reporters Monday he "would love to be here," and is hopeful an agreement with the Bears can be worked out.
Montgomery was a major contributor to the 2022 Bears, helping break the single-season franchise record for rushing yards with 3,014. In 16 games this past season, Montgomery recorded 801 rushing yards on 201 carries and five touchdowns.
A third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Iowa State, Montgomery has been a key piece to the Bears' rushing attack since he arrived in Chicago. In each of his four seasons, Montgomery surpassed 800 rushing yards and 200 carries, with his best year coming in 2020 when he tallied 1,070 yards on the ground with 247 touches.
While Poles understands the complexity of free agency and contract situations, the GM didn't shy away from expressing his love for Montgomery, saying: "I've always wanted to keep David."
"I love his mentality, how he plays the game. I told him that to his face," Poles said. "He's part of the identity that we had this year that kept us competitive. Now, the second part of that is just the contract situation. That's something that we'll see how that goes and if we can find common ground. Obviously, I've learned that you can want a player and the value's got to come together for it to happen. I love the way he attacked this season. That's a guy that does everything right. You all watched his tenacity, his fight. I'm a big David Montgomery fan."
When Poles joined the Bears last offseason, one of the first players he singled out was Mooney, calling him a "bright spot" who is "hungry to be special." Nearly a year later, Poles has grown to appreciate the third-year pro even more.
While Mooney missed the Bears' last five games with an ankle injury he sustained against the Jets Nov. 27, which required season-ending surgery, Poles and Eberflus expect him to be healthy in the spring, barring any setbacks in rehab.
"I love him more than I did when I first walked in the door," Poles said. "I think he's a special human being, first and foremost, and a really good football player. I don't know if I have the specific details [on his rehab]. I know he's doing really well. Everything's positive. He's headed in the right direction. He's been rehabbing a bunch. So he's in good spirits.
"He's a guy, too, that in adversity, he's a guy that says 'it is what it is, I'm going to control what I can control and you know I'm going to come back just as good if not better than I was before.' So everything's positive."
As far as Claypool, who the Bears traded their 2023 second-round draft pick for on Nov. 1, Poles isn't concerned about the receiver's production since coming to Chicago. Playing in just seven games with the Bears this season – missing two weeks with a knee injury – Claypool tallied 14 catches for 140 yards.
While Poles would have been excited if Claypool made a big splash immediately, he understood it would likely take some time for the receiver to adjust and become a playmaker for the Bears. Looking ahead to the 2023 season, Poles is eager to see what the duo of Claypool and quarterback Justin Fields can be following a full offseason of work.
"That's the difference between trades in baseball and basketball, it's like plug-and-play," Poles said. "There's an entire offseason and half of a season of installs and all the things you need to do collectively to play and execute offensive play. On top of that, it was a little bit choppy with Justin getting dinged up, he got dinged up. So, it was a little bit choppy of a start. I told Chase, and we had a really good conversation, I'm not blinking at that one at all. I think he's gonna help us moving forward and I'm excited about it."
Rookie experience: While the Bears' young core endured some growing pains this season, Poles is excited about the in-game experience each rookie gained. Poles said the Bears "led the league in rookie snaps by almost a thousand," which will pay off down the road as the game continues to slow down for those players.
One rookie that stood out to Poles was Braxton Jones, who held down the left tackle spot from training camp through the end of the season. The Bears' fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah, Jones exceeded expectations, playing every snap on offense in his first NFL season.
"I was proud of Braxton," Poles said. "He's got a long ways to go to reach his ceiling but for his path and if you look … not many people look at the schedule for a player who goes into the offseason, Senior Bowl, combine, comes in as a fifth-round pick, battles through camp, gets a spot and then plays every single snap through the season. That's an accomplishment right there. That tells me he's wired right. He's got mental toughness, roll the ups and downs. So I'm hoping that he continues to work on his body, his technique and that's someone that we can play with and be successful with for a while."