What a difference a year makes.
The Bears entered last offseason handcuffed, with minimal salary cap space and no first-round draft pick, having traded it to the Giants in 2021 to move up nine spots in the first round to select quarterback Justin Fields at No. 11.
Fast forward 12 months and Ryan Poles will step into his second offseason as Bears general manager equipped with significant salary cap space and not only a first-round selection but the No. 1 overall choice in the draft.
"We have flexibility where if there's opportunities where if we can turn that into a lot of players that come in and help us, we can do that," Poles said Tuesday during his end-of-season press conference at Halas Hall. "If it's staying put or really being selective with certain people, we can do that as well.
"I know my expectation, our expectation, is that we move the needle to be more successful. We can win some of these close games and bring in guys that can impact this football team."
Poles will lead a thorough evaluation of the Bears roster to identify team needs heading into free agency, which begins March 15. But just because he has more funds at his disposal than last year doesn't mean that he intends to pass out money like Oprah giving away cars to her audience.
"Obviously, we have a lot more resources," Poles said. "But we've got to stay sound in free agency. I know everyone's talking about how much money we have and we're just going to go crazy. We're going to be sound so that we get the right players in here and we get good value."
Poles was asked what he anticipates will be the Bears' most pressing need.
"It's hard to identify that right now, but I always go back to the premium positions," he said. "We're always going to look at pass rushers. We're going to look at offensive linemen, corners. That's where we're always going to start and see, can we play winning football with premium positions?' and then we move from there."
“The expectation is to take that next step. I want to stair-step this thing to the top, and then stay up there as absolutely long as possible.” Bears GM Ryan Poles
The Bears will intensify their preparation for free agency next week.
"We went through a first phase with a couple positions to kind of see how it stacked up and eyeballed," Poles said. "We are starting next week where we sit in the same situation as the draft room, where we go position-by-position. It's hard to tell right now how deep it is in different areas. But I guess that's something we'll find out here next week when we kind of finish all the way across."
The draft, meanwhile, will be held April 27-29 in Kansas City. This is the first time the Bears have had the No. 1 pick since 1947, when they chose halfback Bob Fenimore.
Sitting at No. 1, the Bears will be able to draft the top player on their board or try to trade down to acquire additional picks.
"It goes back to what I said about flexibility," Poles said. "We can evaluate talent there, we can see what player presents himself in that position to help us, and then we can look at the scenarios. If the phones go off and there are certain situations where that can help us, then we'll go down that avenue too.
"I think we have really good flexibility to help this team, regardless if it's making the pick there or moving back a little bit or moving back a lot. We'll be open-minded to everything."
The Bears have the following eight picks in the draft:
Round 2 (from Ravens)
Round 4 (from Eagles)
Round 5 (from Ravens)
Although the Bears have more resources this offseason, Poles insists that his approach will remain the same as it was last year.
"We're going to evaluate the players," he said. "We're going to put them in certain value buckets, and then we're going to attack it and get as many good players in here as possible. I think you make a mistake if you say, 'this is it.' We're going to approach it the same and be consistent so that we make sound decisions."
Poles' expectations for the offseason can be summed up in three words: "To get better."
"We need to win more games," Poles said. "Some of those tight games, I want to finish. I want to finish better. More playmakers is going to allow us to do that, so the expectation is to take that next step. I want to stair-step this thing to the top, and then stay up there as absolutely long as possible.
"I always go back to making sound decisions. Sometimes when you don't make sound decisions, in the short term it can look really good. But then it's what happens after, so we want to make decisions that can last a long time so we can stay at the top. We don't have to peak and then [have] the drop off after."