Justin’s Case: How the Bears Should Handle Fields and the No. 1 Pick
Year after year, NFL teams prove that finding the right quarterback is the biggest key for high-end, long-term success and ultimately winning Super Bowls.
The Chicago Bears need to decide if they have that quarterback in Justin Fields or if they should spend the No. 1 overall pick on another passer in what is considered a quality draft at the position.
The Kansas City Chiefs have won two Super Bowls in the last four years because they had a pretty good quarterback in Alex Smith and still decided to trade up in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick. Now they have the best quarterback in the world. Over the last 10 Super Bowls, nine have been won with teams who had franchise quarterbacks at the helm. The only team that can’t be categorized that way is the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, with whom quarterback Nick Foles went on an unprecedented tear just in time for the postseason.
An elite passing game can cover up other flaws and means a team is never fully out of a contest. We learned that on Sunday. Only one other team came back from a double-digit point deficit in the second half of the Super Bowl before Mahomes and the Chiefs managed it again in their 38-35 Super Bowl LVII win. Mahomes, playing on an ankle injury, didn’t light the world on fire but still commandeered the Chiefs offense with a 21-of-27, 182-yard, three-touchdown Super Bowl MVP-worthy performance. And it’s worth mentioning that the Eagles wouldn’t have come as close as they did to a Super Bowl victory without Jalen Hurts’ four-touchdown performance. He had a costly fumble that went for a Chiefs defensive score, but he did everything he could to assure victory while going 27-of-38 for 304 passing yards with one passing touchdown and rushing 15 times for 70 yards with three rushing touchdowns and a two-point conversion run. The Eagles seemingly had a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz and still drafted Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. It is smart to draft quarterbacks.
WHAT DO THE BEARS HAVE IN FIELDS?
After a pretty tough rookie season, Fields showed dramatic improvement in Year 2. He saw his well-thrown percentage rise from 70.9% to 75.6%. His pickable pass percentage dropped from 5.36% to 4.95%. And his passing EVE rose from -0.926 to -0.131. Fields ranked 17th in passing EVE in just his second season, though he was still 27th in well-thrown percentage, 29th in catchable pass percentage and 24th in pickable percentage.
Much of his “passing” value was derived from his scrambling ability since a scramble is counted as a dropback. Fields led the NFL in attempted scrambles (which includes scrambles that led to sacks) with 83 for 637 yards. He was also first in scramble yards per carry at 7.7. He was third in quarterback designed runs with 74 carries for 439 yards and was fourth with 5.9 yards per carry. He averaged 7.14 yards per carry overall, which led all qualified players regardless of position.
Even without being an above average passer (yet), Fields still ranked better than players like Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones and Aaron Rodgers in EVE this season.
An interesting thing about Fields is that prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, he was considered a better passer than runner. He always had potential as a rushing quarterback based on his elite combination of size and speed, but he improved dramatically in the ground game even from his rookie season to 2022. And based on his accuracy in college and the improvements he made as a passer from his rookie season to 2022, there’s certainly still upside to his ability throwing the ball moving forward, as well. And it’s probably unfair to critique Fields as a pure passer until the Bears surround him with a better offensive line and playmakers.
The Bears’ offensive line allowed the seventh-highest pressure rate and highest sack rate last season. Their receivers ranked 17th in burn percentage and eighth in open percentage. Bears general manager Ryan Poles made a move at the trade deadline to improve Chicago’s wide receiver corps by trading for Chase Claypool (though you can question the decision to give up what wound up being the 33rd overall pick to do so), but the simple fact remains that the Bears’ top receivers were tight end Cole Kmet, wide receivers Darnell Mooney and Equanimeous St. Brown and running back David Montgomery. Eight offensive linemen played more than 200 snaps for the Bears last season, and while it appears they found something in rookie tackle Braxton Jones and right guard Teven Jenkins, the rest of the line could use upgrades this season.
OPTIONS AT NO. 1 OVERALL
All of this is to say that while it would be understandable if the Bears still used the No. 1 overall pick on a quarterback like Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud or Will Levis, they also already have a young quarterback with high-quality traits in Fields, and they still don’t totally know how good he can be based on the product Chicago put on the field in 2022. Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus also didn’t draft Fields. They inherited him from former GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy. So, that could play into their decision, as well. But as great as Young and Stroud were in college and as high as Levis’ upside is perceived to be, it helps the case to look elsewhere in a draft where there’s not a Trevor Lawrence- or Andrew Luck-type generational prospect atop the 2023 QB class.
The Bears lead the NFL with $94.4 million in salary cap space, so they can improve fairly quickly this offseason. The Jacksonville Jaguars went from 3-14 to 9-8 and a playoff win thanks to some offseason spending, the hiring of head coach Doug Pederson and improved play from Lawrence. If the Bears spend wisely on, well, pretty much everything from wide receivers to offensive line help and defense, then they too could see a pretty drastic improvement from their 3-14 finish last season.
With so many quarterback-needy teams in the 2023 NFL Draft, Chicago could set itself up well for the future by trading that No. 1 overall pick to the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers or any number of other teams who could use a franchise quarterback. They could also trade Fields, but there’s going to be more value in giving away the No. 1 overall pick. Just two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers traded three first-round picks and a third-round pick for the No. 3 overall pick to take Trey Lance. And with many suitors for a QB, the Bears should have attractive offers on the table.
The worst thing the Bears could do is sit at No. 1 overall and not take a quarterback. But if they do trade down and still acquire a top-10 pick, then they can essentially take the top player on their board regardless of position based on all of the needs they have on their roster. Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Alabama edge defender Will Anderson, Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon, Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski, Texas Tech edge defender Tyree Wilson, Georgia Tech edge defender Keion White, Iowa edge defender Lukas Van Ness, Clemson edge defender Myles Murphy, Ohio State offensive tackle Paris Johnson and even USC wide receiver Jordan Addison are potential top-10 picks depending on how far the Bears would trade down.
And let’s say the Bears give it one more year with Fields and he doesn’t work out. Sure, they might not have the No. 1 overall pick again, but if they trade out of this spot and wind up with two future first-round picks, then that can help them trade up for a quarterback in next year’s draft. It’s not as if trading out of the No. 1 spot this year takes them out of the running for a quarterback in the future. If anything, it just delays that decision while allowing themselves another year to see what they have in Fields while improving the roster around him.
Poles said last month that the Bears would have to be “blown away” to take a QB at No. 1 overall. There’s still time in the pre-draft process for that to happen, but Young, Stroud, Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson are not perfect prospects. Fields deserves more time. We’ll see if the Bears wind up giving it to him.