He has thrown for the fewest yards of any qualifying quarterback and has just three touchdowns to his seven interceptions.
Yet, there are plenty of positives regarding the 11th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft.
From getting sacked nine times in his NFL debut against the Cleveland Browns to getting picked off by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three times just two weeks ago, the growth of Chicago Bears QB Justin Fields has been abundantly obvious.
Has Fields made some boneheaded plays in his short career? Without a doubt. Have there been areas of concern for him through his first seven starts? Absolutely. However, when looking at the bigger picture, the growth of the former Ohio State star has been pretty linear – even with the handcuffs holding him back in Chicago.
Of the five top quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2021, only Zach Wilson of the New York Jets is playing behind a worse pass-blocking offensive line than Fields’ group up front. That includes San Francisco 49ers backup and No. 3 pick Trey Lance, whose team’s o-line rates fifth in pass blocking. The Jets rank 15th while the Bears are 12th by our model, which takes an aggregate of the linemen’s ability to pass protect and adjusts for position.
Though he’s only slightly slower than league average (2.66) with a 2.72 release time – proving he’s getting the ball out at nearly an average pace, Fields is the most sacked quarterback in the league. And there are some head-scratching coaching decisions in Chicago that have plagued not only Fields, but the team as a whole.
It does not matter how efficiently Fields can move his eyes, as we see above. Even in times when Fields can get his eyes backside and onto a second or third progression, he often has pressure in his face that prohibits him from getting the ball out.
We have seen each of these rookie quarterbacks struggle at times – even Mac Jones of the New England Patriots, who seems to be playing the best. But the question must be asked: Would Fields be struggling in New England, or would Jones be playing this confidently in Chicago?
The answer to each of those questions might very well be no.
Yet despite all of this, the superstar potential is starting to shine through the overcast skies he currently finds himself in. Against the 49ers, we saw Fields dropping passes into buckets, threading tight windows, and executing concepts on time as he got the ball out quick.
He’s throwing into windows that he proved too gun-shy to throw into against the Browns in his first career start. His downfield accuracy is proving to be just as effective as it was in college, as he had the highest well-thrown percentage among those in the 2021 NFL Draft class who averaged at least 10.0 air yards per attempt.
Fields, who threw for a career-high 291 yards and nearly led the Bears to a dramatic win over the Pittsburgh Steelers by throwing a go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:46 remaining, has overtaken Baltimore Ravens star Lamar Jackson for the most air yards (10.6) in the league this year. Say what you want about the rookie quarterback, but he’s taking his shots to levels of the field where he has historically found the most success. And it is paying off.
Not only that, but the Bears are finally starting to take advantage of something that Fields has that very few other quarterbacks possess: the ability to use his legs as a serious weapon. It’s simply unfair for a quarterback listed at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds to run a 40-yard dash in the 4.4s.
Through Week 9, Fields is tied for fifth in the NFL with a 90.9 well-thrown percentage and ranks eighth with 8.27 air yards among those with at least 10 pass attempts off a boot concept. He’s also thrown no pickable passes on his 11 throws and has scrambled eight times for 9.8 yards per carry off boot.
When Fields is given the opportunity to throw on the run, the results have been largely positive for him. But play-calling has yet to cater to his strengths in order to unlock the full potential of their franchise quarterback.
Speaking of his ability to use his legs, we have begun to see some absolutely uncoachable elements to Fields’ game arise as well. When a play breaks down, Fields can turn into an absolute weapon and spring the offense forward for positive yardage.
In fact, Fields is capable of getting far more than just positive yardage, as he showed against the 49ers. On a boot concept, and a play in which Fields had an open target, Fields has a man in his face immediately off the play fake. When a big-time playmaker makes a big-time play out of an inopportune situation, it requires no analysis – you just have to shake your head.
Consider how Fields has responded to adversity. After getting knocked around in his first career start against the Browns, he came out firing and landed multiple punches against the Detroit Lions in his first career win. He threw for a then career-high 209 yards while averaging 12.3 air yards per attempt.
The Bears got beat down by the defending Super Bowl champs in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (a game where Fields was frankly set up for sacrifice). He then bounced back to complete a career-best 70.4% of his 27 attempts in perhaps the best game of his career against Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and the 49ers’ defense.
Fields then came out in primetime football and nearly pulled out a comeback win at Heinz Field. He hit threw one dart after another, perhaps topping his performance versus San Francisco by layering throws to every level of the field.
Ultimately, unless Chicago makes a franchise-altering coaching move, it’s fair to wonder whether the full potential of Fields may never come to fruition. The Bears’ play calling is stale and doesn’t seem to fit their young QB’s strengths.
The bright spots are there with Fields, and one does not have to look particularly hard to find them.
Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.