The Chicago Bears had the opportunity to hit the eject button on the Justin Fields era.
Chicago had the first overall selection of the NFL Draft, the first time since 1947 they held the top pick. The current Bears regime didn’t trade up to draft Fields in the first round of the 2021 draft. That was the old regime. There were times last season when the new regime put very little trust in Fields, though the subpar situation around him probably had something to do with that. And Bryce Young was a very good prospect atop the draft.
It would have been a bit extreme for the Bears to move on after the progress Fields made last season, and most analysts voiced that they’d stick with Fields, but it wouldn’t have been widely criticized if they traded Fields and picked Young. Some encouraged it. If the Bears wanted out, this was their opportunity.
As we know, the Bears stuck with Fields. They traded the first overall draft pick, which was the prudent move. For better or worse, they committed to Fields as their future.
Not many teams coming off a three-win season have much optimism, but the Bears do. Fields was electric at times late last season. The Bears found a new No. 1 receiver in a dry market, using the first overall pick of the draft to trade for DJ Moore and a bunch of selections. Chicago added to its defense and offensive line in free agency and the draft. The Bears’ win total at BetMGM is 7.5, which would be a five-win improvement if you like the over. As of mid-May, 85% of money bet on the Bears’ win total was on the over.
It seems like all the excitement might be coming a bit too fast. Even with the hype around Fields.
Fields had 1,143 rushing yards last season, coming up just short of Lamar Jackson’s QB record of 1,206. Fields showed athleticism at Ohio State but nothing indicated that kind of explosion was coming. It was a nice surprise. He was thrilling in some games, with some of the best highlight plays the NFL had last season. But Fields was nowhere near where he needs to be as a passer, even accounting for the poor situation around him.
Fields threw for just 2,242 yards in 15 games last season. He has 25 career starts and hasn’t reached 300 yards in any of them. He threw for more than 190 yards in a game just twice last season. Part of that was the Bears’ reluctance to have him pass the ball. Fields never had more than 28 attempts in a game last season, which is surprising for a 3-14 team that faced a lot of deficits. It also might be telling that the coaching staff was hesitant to let him throw the ball, even when game scripts dictated it.
All offseason, the Bears expressed confidence in the strides Fields made. Part of that was to deflect attention from the talk of them using the No. 1 pick on a quarterback. But if the Bears weren’t happy, they probably would have moved on.
“The results of it, the statistics that everyone’s looking for, those will come,” Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “And we know that.”
The situation around Fields is better. Moore and Chase Claypool, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers before last season’s deadline, are significant upgrades at receiver. The offensive line will be better with tackle Darnell Wright, the No. 10 overall pick of the draft, and guard Nate Davis, a free-agent addition. Presumably, the coaching staff will have more confidence in calling pass plays for their quarterback.
There’s still a lot of work to do overall. The defense was awful last season. Chicago was dead last in the NFL in passing yards last season, with a total of 2,598 that is shockingly low for this era. The Bears were slightly unlucky to win just three games, but they were clearly one of the worst teams in football.
The Bears are ready to make some strides. Their future will go as far as their young quarterback takes them.
The Bears improved. But did they use their resources in the best possible way?
Chicago gave $72 million over four years to off-ball linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and backed that up with $19.5 million over three years to T.J. Edwards, another off-ball linebacker. That came after trading Roquan Smith last season, and Smith is better than Edmunds and Edwards. The defensive line, which needed much more help than linebacker did, gets a boost with DeMarcus Walker. However, Walker has never been a full-time starter and had just 12.5 sacks his first five NFL seasons before jumping to seven last season with the Tennessee Titans. Guard Nate Davis, signed from the Titans, will be an asset. Receiver DJ Moore, acquired in the trade for the No. 1 pick with the Carolina Panthers, was a huge get. Chicago lost David Montgomery but did sign D’Onta Foreman off a strong season with the Panthers, so that should be close to a wash. The Bears got better. It’s just worth wondering if they deserve all of the widespread plaudits for their offseason haul. The draft netted four top-64 picks — it probably should have been five but the Bears traded what became the 32nd pick of the draft for Chase Claypool — and offensive tackle Darnell Wright, defensive lineman Gervon Dexter, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and defensive lineman Zacch Pickens should all help right away.
Here are a few advanced stats that show Justin Fields has a long way to go as a passer. Fields was dead last among 33 qualified quarterbacks in adjusted yards per pass attempt last season, via Pro Football Reference. His percentage of on-target throws (71.1%) was tied for 28th among PFR’s 33 qualified QBs. Fields’ Pro Football Focus passing grade was 35th among the 39 QBs who had at least 170 dropbacks last season. Fields had the highest turnover-worthy play percentage (4.4%) among QBs with at least 400 dropbacks, per PFF. He was last, by a wide margin, in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric among QBs with at least 200 attempts. Fields has the skills to be a top passer and he has a much better supporting cast this season, but he was not good enough throwing the ball last season.
There’s no denying Fields’ talent though. The reason the Bears are sticking by him is he has the ability to make an NFC championship defense look like this:
BetMGM odds breakdown
My favorite NFL future bet on the board at BetMGM might be under 7.5 wins for the Bears. The under is even odds because most of the bets have come in on the over. I believe Justin Fields will be just fine as a passer and the Bears as a whole are better. But they didn’t do enough to overhaul the defense and there still should be some skepticism about Fields. They do have an easy schedule (sixth easiest this season, per Sharp Football Analysis which uses season win totals to determine strength of schedule) but adding five wins is too much for me. It’s an easy pick for the under.
Yahoo’s fantasy take
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Justin Fields checked in as the QB6 last year, on the strength of his athleticism and fearless rushing style. About 55% of his fantasy points came from his rushing yards and touchdowns, an unrealistic ratio for anyone to expect this season. Of course the Bears think they’ve finally given Fields ample receiving support, especially through the trade for DJ Moore. And a healthy Darnell Mooney could be an interesting sleeper, someone who will likely fall about seven rounds after Moore does.
“It’s important to recognize the gap between real-life and fantasy value, and Fields is one of the players who most symbolizes that gap. But if you’re going to pay the raised ADP freight on Fields this year — he’s currently being drafted around QB8 — you need to believe he’s ready to take a step forward as a passer in Year 3. I’ll probably be agnostic when it comes to Fields at the draft table, unlikely to target him at full ADP, but willing to swoop in if the market presents a value. Otherwise, I’ll take heart in the fact that quarterback remains a fairly deep fantasy position, presenting reasonable alternatives at almost any price point.”
Stat to remember
Here are some of the categories in which the Bears defense finished last in the NFL last season: points allowed, points per drive allowed, yards per passing play allowed, sacks, Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Matt Eberflus is a respected defensive coach but there wasn’t a lot of talent on that side of the ball. That should improve this season, though it’s debatable how much their investments at linebacker will turn things around. The only returning player who had more than three sacks last season is safety Jaquan Brisker, who led the team with four. When a safety leads your team in sacks, it’s usually a terrible sign. The Bears didn’t add much punch to the pass rush, in the draft or free agency. Nobody on the current Bears roster is a great bet to reach five sacks this season. The Bears have some young talent in the secondary, but it’s not a group that is good enough to hold up without help from the pass rush. If the Bears defense is better this season, it probably won’t be a huge improvement.
How much can DJ Moore help the passing game?
Landing Moore was shrewd by the Bears. The Panthers probably didn’t want to give up a No. 1 receiver who just turned 26, but the Bears were smart to insist Moore was part of the deal for the top overall pick. Moore made an impression right away in offseason practices.
“The first thing I would say is speed,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said, according to the team’s site. “I just saw that. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a different gear there.'”
Moore is unquestionably talented. He was also held back by poor quarterback play in Carolina, but still managed three 1,000-yard seasons in five years with the Panthers. The Bears had to upgrade their pass catchers, and did. A top three at receiver of Moore, Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney, along with tight end Cole Kmet, is good enough to have a plus passing game. Moore probably won’t put up huge numbers unless the Bears do a 180 on their run-heavy approach from last season, but he should be a much-needed asset for Justin Fields.
The betting market is pretty high on the Bears. Maybe it’s justified. Justin Fields had some moments last season in which he looked like a future star. It’s possible, with better players around him, he could improve in his third season like Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa did last season. If Fields makes that kind of leap, and the defense gets better in Matt Eberflus’ second season, perhaps the Bears are the team that shoots way up the standings. Maybe by the end of December, we’re talking about the Bears being in wild-card contention and Fields being an MVP candidate. It’s within the range of outcomes.
This is a key season for Justin Fields. While the Bears aren’t the San Francisco 49ers when it comes to offensive supporting casts, they’re good enough that we should know what Fields is by the end of this season. And what if the answer is that he’s not good enough as a pocket passer to be a franchise quarterback? The Bears probably won’t lose enough games to land a top-two pick in the 2024 draft and a replacement for Fields either. The decision to stick with Fields and not U-turn to Bryce Young made complete sense at the time, but it could become a big regret.
The crystal ball says …
Some teams take off suddenly, going from the doldrums of the league to flirting with playoff contention in one season. I figure there will be a more incremental improvement with the Bears. They’ll be better this season. Justin Fields is going to make strides. Chicago will win more games. But playoff contention is still at least a year away.
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