Bears passing on Jalen Carter was right move for many reasons

Bears passing on Carter for Wright was right move for many reasons originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — You could feel it coming from the moment the 2023 NFL Draft began. Bears general manager Ryan Poles was about to face an early tenure-defining moment.

As expected, Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter started to slide due to the character red flags that defined his pre-draft process. Once the Seattle Seahawks passed on the Georgia defensive tackle at No. 5, it was almost a certainty that he would fall into the Bears’ lap at No. 9, and Poles would have to make a grueling decision — one that would tell us a lot about how this regime evaluates players and what it prioritizes.

Sure enough, the Detroit Lions traded out of the No. 6 pick, and the Arizona Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders, and Atlanta Falcons all passed on Carter, putting the Bears and Poles on the clock.

But what many thought would be a tough decision for Poles was no decision at all.

The Bears fielded two trade calls and eventually sent the No. 9 pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for the No. 10 pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick. The Eagles took Carter, paving the way for the Bears to select Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright.

In a vacuum, one where only the 100-yard field on Sunday matters, the Bears might have sprinted to the podium to draft Carter. He’s a game-wrecking three-technique who is the best interior lineman the draft has seen in years.

It’s clear that the vast intel-gathering process the Bears did on Carter told them everything they needed to know. Whether it was the lack of maturity, the questionable practice habits, a tepid love for the game, or the reckless driving incident, Carter was not a guy for them.

“Yeah, I won’t comment specifically on him but character’s always going to be important for us,” Pole said Thursday when asked about passing on Carter.

Ever since they took over, Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus have told us what they prioritize in the players they want to be the foundation of this rebuild.

Big, strong, tough, explosive, and athletic. Well, Carter checked all those boxes. Jalen Carter, the player, is a home-run pick. On Madden, he’s easily draftable.

However, the other benchmarks — the intangible ones that show you who a guy is when the chips are down and tell you what he is really made of — well, Carter couldn’t clear them. It doesn’t even seem like he was close.

In Wright, the Bears get an offensive tackle that personifies everything Poles and Eberflus have preached. At 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, Wright is a powerful pass protector with the underrated athleticism to get out and pave the way in the Bears’ wide-zone run scheme. His senior season tape was flawless, highlighted by his domination of Alabama’s Will Anderson and his clean sheet against Georgia.

But it wasn’t Wright’s tape that made him the easy selection for the Bears over Carter. If we’re just watching tape, Carter is probably the pick.

Where Wright won over the Bears was in a grueling workout led by offensive line coach Chris Morgan, one designed to push Wright to the brink, and his top-30 sit down with Poles where he was an open book.

“I remember going in there and it was good, they ask me some questions, they dug a little bit,” Wright told NBC Sports Chicago of his meeting with Poles a week before the draft. “I just knew – I think they were impressed because I could just be myself. I don’t have anything to hide. I don’t have to sit in there and try to be this perfect person or make these perfect sentences to sound like the perfect person. I could just be myself. They respected that.”

The pre-draft process for Carter was all about fixing his reputation and trying to prove to teams that the game-wrecker on film isn’t a culture wrecker in the locker room. That betting on his talent wouldn’t give them any unnecessary headaches.

The Eagles can afford to take the gamble on Carter. They have a loaded roster filled with respected veterans. They have a long-established culture and a strong infrastructure that can withstand the blow of Carter not panning out.

The Bears, who are in the infancy stages of a massive rebuild, cannot.

Moreover, they had no appetite to try.

RELATED: Wright ready to do his job, keep ‘amazing’ Fields clean

It would have been easy for Poles to take Carter. Having the top-ranked player in the class, one littered with red flags, fall to you at No. 9 can be seen as a gift. It would have been easy to defend. Poles could have said Carter showed contrition for his missteps in their meetings, and the Bears believe he is a talented young man who loves football and will help them win games.

But the decision to pass on Carter, and do so rather quickly, says a lot about the Poles-Eberflus regime. All the coach-speak about fit and H.I.T.S. principle jargon isn’t an act. It’s a litmus test for the type of players they want to bring in.

With questions about his practice habits and love of the game, Carter never seemed like a H.I.T.S guy. For a regime that has constructed a church at Halas Hall around the four fundamental tenets — hustle, intensity, takeaways, and smart football — having their first first-round pick be a guy who might not buy in was a non-starter.

Taking Carter was a gamble that could have rebuild-wrecking ramifications. The Bears will have two first-round picks next season. At least one pick — their own — will likely be in the top 10. After that, the goal is to not pick in the top 10.

If the Bears had breezed past Carter’s red flags and he had self-destructed, their rebuild would be dealt a blow. Missing on top-10 picks, especially when your roster lacks elite talent, can splinter the foundation you’re trying to build.

On Thursday, Poles described Wright as a “tone-setter.” Someone who doesn’t quit and who is a finisher. Someone who just keeps coming. Someone with ultimate buy-in who lives to poor sweat in the bucket every day.

Carter never seemed like that guy.

Maybe Carter will blossom in Philadelphia. I won’t be surprised if he does. But it doesn’t mean he would have done the same with the Bears. Situations, fit, and infrastructure are vital in cases like this.

Wright aced the compatibility test. He and the Bears’ brass are cut from the same cloth. Their values aligned. Their desires the same.

You might be upset the Bears passed on Carter. I get it. The talent is tantalizing, and winning on Sundays is paramount.

But Poles will sleep soundly with the decision he made. Some gambles are worth going all-in, and some never pass the smell test.

Those are the ones you walk away from — just as the Bears did from Jalen Carter.

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