The national condemnation accorded Bears first-year GM Ryan Poles for failing to support Justin Fields always focuses on receivers, although it's probably more of a reality on the offensive line.
It's easy to dogpile but not as easy to produce facts and alternatives.
Where exactly did Poles flop when it came to providing wide receivers, if he did?
The constraints on Poles are as well established as his supposed failure to come up with what many consider to be viable receivers.
Poles had no first-round draft pick and, after dealing away three of the previous four first-round picks, the Bears were not about to trade another first-round pick to move up into Round 1 for a receiver.
They had some free agency cash available but less than $30 million in cap space at the outset and needed it to sign eight or more players who received $1.4 million or more for this year but were essential to replace players who weren't wanted or who left.
They eventually signed no free agent to a deal longer than two years in length, so they were focusing on the short term because their cap fortunes change drastically next year.
The players who got two-year deals were defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, center Lucas Patrick, defensive tackle Justin Jones and quarterback Trevor Siemian. No one else got more than a year.
They were able to afford $6 million for this year for Jones, $4 million for Muhammad and Patrick, $4 million for Siemian, and a $4.125 million one-year deal for Byron Pringle as their top receiver acquisition. The rest of the cash was needed at other positions for one year and low money, less than $1.5 million a year.
So basing the offseason plan on what they actually had available and players they felt they needed besides receiver, the Bears topped out at $4.125 million for a receiver.
Spend more and they're not getting a player of the caliber they did at other positions. In fact, they may not even be able to afford someone more qualified than an undrafted free agent if they pursued a few receivers higher up the cost chart.
They weren't spending $18 million for receiver Christian Kirk because they'd be left with $11 million for the entire rest of their offseason work and in future years they're stuck with his contrract. Even $10 million in one season for D.J. Chark, Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Russell Gage would have pretty much finished plans for filling at least two other offseason needs.
So here are the receivers they could have had in free agency besides Pringle based on Poles' rebuilding plan, and what those receivers eventually received.
*Contracts per Spotrac.com
Signing Green, who is 34 this season, made no sense for a young, rebuilding team.
Signing Landry would have made more sense even though he is 30 this year. However, they would have been bringing in a veteran who would take away catches—as well as play and practice reps—from younger receivers they drafted this year and then next year. What's the point of that when you're trying to get the QB and receivers to develop as young players together with the rest of the offense? You're building a real team, not simply putting together a fantasy football team.
A veteran free agent acquisition should be someone a winning team needs as a stop-gap after losing someone to injury or free agency, or should be one young enough to be part of a rebuilding team's future.
Of those, only Smith-Schuster qualifies as someone the Bears should have pursued.
If you're condemning the Bears for signing Byron Pringle instead of Smith-Schuster for one year, there might be many in agreement.
It's still not a significant enough difference to worry about the future of a franchise or a quarterback's development over one receiver who is as average as Smith-Schuster, and might be gone next year after signing a one-year deal.
In fact, when you throw in Pringle's grade as best Pro Football Focus run-blocking receiver for 2021 with the fact Pringle last year produced at a higher rate when he finally got more playing time, and it's not hard to make a case that he has a higher upside than Smith-Schuster. Pringle made 3.2 catches for 42.9 yards and 3 TDs when he got in for as many as 46% of play last year for the first time ever. For the seven games he didn't get that many snaps and averaged just 1.7 catches and 24.3 yards a games.
Also, Pringle has experience playing with a mobile quarterback like Fields and knows how to extend plays when QBs extend them outside the pocket. Ben Roethlislberger was always good at extending plays a few seconds within the pocket, but was not scramblig far outside of it to pick out Smith-Schuster on the move like Patrick Mahomes did when Pringle played in Kansas City.
At worst, it's a very slight difference in quality of player and not something to warrant the tremendous criticism leveled at Poles.
As for the draft, Wan'Dale Robinson and John Metchie were the two receivers the Bears could have taken instead of second-round cornerback Kyler Gordon.
Robinson is a 5-foot-8 slot guy and this new Bears offense emphasizes bigger receivers. Metchie isn't a bigger X-receiver and is coming off a December ACL tear.
Instead of drafting safety Jaquan Brisker, the Bears could have taken Tyquan Thornton, George Pickens, Alec Pierce or Skyy Moore.
Moore played in the MAC and didn't face the best defensive backs, is smaller and a slot or Z but not the X the Bears needed. D'Wayne Eskridge just came out of Western Michigan, also in Round 2 but in 2021, and he produced only 10 rookie catches. So, there are questions about Moore.
Maturity issues dogged Pickens, who was said to have interviewed poorly with some teams in the predraft process.
Pierce played a schedule against defenses from schools like Murray State, Navy, East Carolina, Temple, and was slower than Velus Jones, who faced SEC competition.
Only Thornton, because of his world class speed, might have been a better choice. But then again he is built like a Z at only 181 pounds, ranking him among the lightest 9% of receivers in his entire draft class. And his small 8-1/4-inch hands ranked in the bottom 2% of all receivers in the draft class, definitely not an asset for an X.
By getting Brisker and Jones both, instead of one of those four receivers, they acquired a pass catcher comparable and with no more faults but with higher upside because of a better size/speed edge, and also got one of the best safeties in the draft.
Put together, it doesn't look like the Bears could have done much more at wide receiver than they did and still pulled in enough talent to help put a team on the field. It's easy to take the negative narrative but backing up what's popular with fact isn't so easy.
The proof of Poles' approach will be in the wins, losses and whether Fields has enough help to develop, but at deeper glance it appears they did what was necessary to maximize resources available in order to best help the entire team.
The bottom line is if Fields is good enough, he'll overcome having Byron Pringle instead of JuJu Smith-Schuster for one season.
BearDigest.com publisher Gene Chamberlain has covered the Bears full time for various publications, news services and websites over 30 years, including several years collaborating on weekly NFL/Bears columns with Mike Ditka and Walter Payton for the Copley Newspaper Chain.