Amid Caleb Williams buzz, Bears president set for NFL draft

ByCourtney Cronin ESPN logo
Sunday, April 21, 2024

CHICAGO -- It was early March, and Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles was having dinner with team president Kevin Warren. It was one of several dinners they would share during a critical two-week span, and among the main topics of conversation was what to do about quarterback Justin Fields.

The Bears have the No. 1 pick in the draft on Thursday and they're expected to take USC quarterback Caleb Williams. That meant Fields was going to be traded.

"I could tell it was one of those situations in which I needed to be close to him, and he needed to be close to me, just to be able to talk through this issue," Warren said of Poles.

Warren just completed his first full year on the job Wednesday, and there have been plenty of critical issues to talk through. From deciding on the next steps in the Bears' stadium venture, to navigating a team rebuild, to restructuring the upper levels of the front office, Warren's first year has presented challenges he said were enticing in luring him from his job as Big Ten commissioner.

The Fields decision presented a unique challenge. Former Bears GM Ryan Pace traded up to draft Fields with the No. 11 pick in 2021, but the Bears finished 6-11 and Pace was fired. Poles was hired on Jan. 25, 2022, and one of his top priorities was to determine if Fields could develop into a franchise quarterback.

There were flashes, but the lack of consistency and the opportunity to draft someone many consider a generational talent sealed Fields' fate.

Warren approached those dinners as more of a confidant than executive, and he could see the decision weighed on his GM. Poles said he wanted to "do right" by Fields by sending him to a team that didn't have a young star quarterback. After the Steelers signed veteran Russell Wilson to a one-year deal, Pittsburgh was a good fit.

Fields was traded on March 18 for a conditional sixth-round pick, which converts to a fourth-rounder if Fields plays 51% of the offensive snaps this season.

Many thought the Bears would be able to get more in return.

"I thought [Poles] did a fantastic job," Warren said. "First and foremost, it's one thing to say that you care about players and then it's another thing to show that you care about players, especially when it's a stressful time."

Warren described the past two months as "one of the most treacherous stretches" he's experienced. The draft preparations, stadium negotiations and restructuring of his staff -- nine new hires or promotions at the VP level -- conspired to turn his first year on the job into a chaotic blur.

"If the Bears were a perennial playoff team and if their stadium project was done, I would not have accepted the job," Warren said. "Probably the No. 1 reason why I came here is that we were coming off of a three-win season and we had a complex stadium project to figure out.

"We needed to infuse some energy into our culture. When I looked across the board, I felt that we needed to move in a positive direction in every area. And I just love the challenge."

WARREN WAS AT the annual league meetings in late March in Orlando, Florida, when an article was published in the Sports Business Journal that listed the top 25 sports business cities in the country. The survey analyzed which cities do the best job of attracting and hosting events.

Warren found it "shocking" that Chicago wasn't included.

"I think this sends a message," he said. "I know it sent a message to me. We need to decide who we want to be. Does Chicago want to be a major sports city that hosts events?"

Warren joined the Minnesota Vikings in 2005 and was the chief operating officer from 2015 to 2019. He was instrumental in the conceptualization and development of U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016 as the home of the Vikings and hosted Super Bowl LII after the 2017 season.

Bears chairman George McCaskey said he was impressed when Warren said the Vikings project was done on time and under budget.

"I know how difficult these projects are," Warren said. "And that's why you do them once every 30 to 40 years. And so we just have to be very focused. We have to be very intentional. You have to be diligent."

The Bears have played in Soldier Field since 1971, but it has the smallest capacity -- 61,500 -- of any NFL stadium. The franchise had purchased land in 2021 to build a fixed-roof stadium in nearby Arlington Heights for $197.2 million. But the challenges of working through a tax settlement with the city reached an impasse soon after Warren was hired.

Warren said the Bears subsequently looked at "12 stadium sites," and the most preferred location was always Chicago, south of Soldier Field.

The Bears are expected to deliver their formal presentation this month. The team has already announced its plans for a $2 billion private investment that will aid in construction of the publicly owned stadium. Once the Bears are able to break ground, Warren believes the stadium will be open in 36 months.

"I think [the new site in Chicago] will be the best site for an NFL team in the United States," Warren said. "It'll put us in a position to have mega events to be able to bid for the Super Bowl, to be able to bid on Final Fours. It will be the most unique environment in all of the United States."

THE BEARS HIRED Warren on Jan. 12, 2023, but he worked two jobs for several months and didn't leave his role as Big Ten commissioner until April 17.

On March 10, Warren was overseeing the Big Ten men's basketball quarterfinals, but he was on the phone throughout the day with Poles. Again, Warren helped guide Poles through a major decision as the Bears traded the No. 1 overall pick to the Carolina Panthers for a package that included wide receiver DJ Moore and the Panthers' No. 1 pick in 2024.

The trade was a foundational element of the Bears' rebuild. Moore had 1,364 receiving yards, the fourth-most in franchise history, and helped the Bears improve from a three-win team to 7-10 last season.

The Panthers, meanwhile, had the worst record in the NFL (2-15), which meant the Bears would be picking first this year.

"In everything that I do, we both sit down and kind of go through it together," Poles said. "It's a good part of the process for me to make sure that I've accounted for all of these different things, and making sure that our processes are well thought out. And then wherever we have a difference, we can work through those things.

"I've felt nothing but trust from his side, and also take his point of view really, really seriously. We'll do extra work to make sure that we are seeing things the right way."

The next step will be the draft. The Bears only have four picks, but they have two in the first round, including No. 9.

Warren will be on hand in the draft room, offering whatever guidance he can as the Bears try to rebuild on the field.

Off the field, the prospect of the stadium project will continue to be at the top of Warren's mind. The football and business elements of the franchise's evolution have provided for a new burst of excitement around the organization.

"There's no wait till next year anymore," said Karen Murphy, the Bears chief operating officer and executive vice president of stadium development. She has been with the Bears for 25 years and was Warren's first major promotion this offseason. "Everything is about -- we're doing it," she said. "We're doing it this year."

McCaskey said it was hard to recall a time of such momentum for the Bears. The bar was set back in 1985, when the franchise won its only Super Bowl. One of Warren's goals is to elevate the Bears to a level where appreciating excellence doesn't require such long walks down memory lane.

"I want really talented people here," Warren said. "I want us to be exceptional."

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