Column: Chicago Bears GM Ryan Poles assumed risk in Montez Sweat trade, but free agency and the draft make it a worthy gamble

No high-profile trade comes without an element of risk.

Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles assumed one when he made another big deadline-day deal Tuesday, sending a second-round draft pick to the Washington Commanders for defensive end Montez Sweat, a formidable addition to a defense utterly lacking a pass rush.

Poles bet on himself and his staff that they can get Sweat to stick with the Bears in the long term and be part of a second wave of roster overhaul. If so, he will be a foundational piece for the defense. That is the risk in the move for Sweat, who the Bears will pay $6.5 million for the final nine games of the season before his contract expires.

Of course, the Bears could consider a franchise or transition tag to keep Sweat in place or create more time for negotiations, but at this point, they have to be hoping it won’t come to that. Poles also has the future of Jaylon Johnson to consider after the cornerback briefly had permission to seek a trade with nothing materializing.

The Sweat trade was a move made for 2024 and beyond, and it makes sense from the standpoint that if the Bears had not traded for Sweat, another team likely would have (Atlanta Falcons?) and prevented him from reaching free agency. Had the Commanders kept Sweat, it’s unlikely they would have allowed him to reach the marketplace.

The Carolina Panthers are highly unlikely to allow Brian Burns to exit as a free agent. In other words, the Bears might have had a hard time finding a player of Sweat’s caliber in free agency. Instead, they could have shopped for leftovers like Yannick Ngakoue, who the Bears signed at the outset of training camp this summer to a $10.5 million, one-year contract. That’s not a path they wanted to head down again.

The college football season is a little more than halfway through and right now the 2024 draft class doesn’t look to have a no-doubt edge rusher. Maybe that changes but in talking with a handful of college evaluators, they’re not blown away by potential high-end talent at the position. Sure, there are intriguing prospects, but right now all come with questions.

If Poles’ evaluators were telling him similar things, it’s possible he reached the same conclusion and decided the risk — who knows how Sweat feels about the Bears and Halas Hall? — was more than worth it.

A second-rounder is a premium selection, no question. The Bears’ selection, now owned by the Commanders, could easily fall in the first five picks of the round. The Commanders could get a great player there. They could wind up with a bust. One personnel man said his team did an exhaustive study of pick value over the last 10 seasons. He called finding a solid starter with a high two — what this pick should be — about a 40% proposition.

“A lot depends on the depth of the individual class,” he said. “And then, of course, you have to nail the pick.”

Poles can always maneuver during the draft, perhaps trading down a short distance with one of his first-round picks, to recoup capital used to acquire Sweat. If the Bears plan to use their first pick on a quarterback, they could trade Justin Fields for a pick.

The Bears have to sign Sweat, 27, to nail this deal because they already know what kind of player he is. Sweat led the Commanders with 6 1/2 sacks (1 1/2 came in the Bears’ Week 5 win over Washington at FedEx Field) and has 32 tackles, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup. His 10 tackles for loss is tied for the second-most in the NFC.

Sweat is one of seven players since 2019 (the year the Commanders drafted him in the first round) to have at least 80 quarterback hits, 30 tackles and 40 tackles for loss joining a list that includes Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa, Joey Bosa, Maxx Crosby, Cam Jordan and Burns. Not only does he hunt quarterbacks, but he’s also a rugged run defender.

“Montez is a huge addition to our team,” Poles said in a statement. “He is not only a great player but a great person. We expect him to help elevate our defense.”

The Bears likely considered the possibility of Sweat’s teammate Chase Young, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2020 and defensive rookie of the year that season. But Young would have come with medical risk after suffering a torn ACL and ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee in 2021. The 49ers wound up acquiring Young, also on an expiring contract, for a supplemental third-round pick Tuesday.

The trade for Sweat is conditional on his passing a physical. Some teams red-flagged him in 2019 at the combine because of a preexisting heart condition. NFL Media reported prior to the draft that other clubs felt the diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which results in thickening of the heart walls, was incorrect.

This is certainly something the Bears will want to look at but Sweat has been a model of durability in the NFL with the exception of time missed in 2021 because of a broken jaw. Chances are the Bears are confident the player will pass their exams.

The Bears knew the pass rush would be a mixed bag this season — they are last in the NFL with only 10 sacks — and that is why they bucked up for Ngakoue. He has been disappointing so far and hasn’t had a quarterback hit in the last three games. Ngakoue is tied with weak-side linebacker T.J. Edwards for the team lead with two sacks. Bears defensive ends have combined for 13 quarterback hits, led by DeMarcus Walker’s five, and have only five sacks in eight games.

Sweat should help change the complexion of the front seven — although he won’t do it by himself — and that in turn should help Johnson and a young secondary cover better.

Poles swung-and-missed when he traded a second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for wide receiver Chase Claypool before the deadline last season. That trade fizzled almost immediately and surely there were lessons learned. Sweat won’t arrive with the football character questions that Claypool brought with him.

It would have been easy for Poles to stand pat, with the Bears 2-6, and continue to assess specifically how he wants to attack many roster needs in the offseason. But he explored all possibilities — even potentially trading the team’s best cornerback, Johnson — and made an aggressive bid to get Sweat.

The Bears project to have about $100 million in salarycap space, more than enough to make a bevy of moves. Poles has to prioritize signing Sweat — the Miami Dolphins got a contract extension done with edge rusher Bradley Chubb two days after acquiring him in a trade from the Denver Broncos last year — and then continue dialogue with Johnson’s camp.

Yes, there is risk involved here. Sweat and his representation have leverage right now knowing the Bears must sign him. But free agency is dangerous and the draft is a gamble in itself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous post Avid Technology (NASDAQ:AVID) Research Coverage Started at
Next post Column: Chicago Bears GM Ryan Poles assumed risk in Montez Sweat trade, but free agency and the draft make it a worthy gamble