It will likely be at least two years before we know if the Bears’ decision to trade up nine spots for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was a good one, but we’re already getting a glimpse of an improved decision-making process at Halas Hall.
Four years after drafting Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the Bears were back in desperate need of a quarterback, but this time, there was very little to complain about when the draft card was submitted. In fact, the selection of Fields appears to be one of the most popular draft picks the city of Chicago has ever seen.
Popularity doesn’t guarantee any success, but the overwhelming positivity in Chicago Thursday night was a sudden departure from an offseason littered with negativity and the result of a fan base recognizing an improvement in the process that led to the selection of Fields.
This time, we didn’t hear how shocked the quarterback was to be taken by the Bears. We heard about how Fields had come “to build sort of a relationship” with head coach Matt Nagy during the pre-draft process. Most that occurred over Zoom sessions, but they also talked at Fields’ second pro day.
“I’m pretty big on having great relationships with my coaches. I think that’s the most effective way to be great and be cooperative as a team,” Fields said.
And this time, we didn’t hear about incognito dinner reservations made under the name “Jim McMahon” after not wanting to be seen at a pro day. Fifteen days ago, Nagy was all over social media, seen chatting with Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in Columbus.
“We went to pretty much all these top pro days, which was challenging this year because we could only bring three (people) -- that was the limit,” Pace said. “It was always Matt, myself and (director of player personnel) Josh Lucas. We also sent (offensive coordinator Bill) Lazor and (assistant director of player personnel) Champ Kelly to his first pro day. So we were able to go to both of them and get a lot of eyes on him.”
The Bears were at both of Fields’ pro days and they didn’t care who knew it.
And this time, the Bears are much more prepared to properly develop a rookie quarterback. John Fox is not the head coach. The Bears are not running an archaic offense. While the fan base is still learning to trust Nagy, the staff that includes Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is experienced and better equipped to bring Fields along. After all, Nagy played a large role in working with Mahomes in 2017.
“They did an awesome job with Patrick coming into Kansas City and Matt and I have talked about that a lot -- that year and how it was handled,” Pace said. “He kind of has a blueprint on how that whole situation went down.”
From the time the Bears signed Andy Dalton in March, it seemed plausible that the drafting of a rookie quarterback would follow. Nagy witnessed the successful mentorship of Mahomes under Alex Smith, so following that blueprint makes sense. The thing is, the Bears attempted a similar blueprint in 2017 too. They just did it with the wrong quarterbacks and had to bench Mike Glennon after four starts.
Say what you want about Dalton, but he’s much better than Glennon. He’s an established starter with a wealth of knowledge and experiences to share. And for now, Nick Foles is on the roster too. The Bears’ quarterback situation is much different than it was in 2017 when Trubisky arrived.
And the roster is much better too. Fields won’t be thrown into a tough environment that isn’t fully committed to developing a rookie quarterback, although a couple upgrades on the offensive line wouldn’t hurt.
Of course, none of this guarantees a successful career for Fields. This is Chicago after all. And the offense has a long way to go before it becomes a success, although Fields will presumably play a large role in jumpstarting Nagy’s system whenever he is handed the keys.
But Fields also has more than 13 college starts. He started 22 games at Ohio State and played in 12 more at Georgia. You didn’t have to go to El Paso to see him play in a bowl game. He played in three College Football Playoff games and outdueled Trevor Lawrence with 385 passing yards and six touchdowns on Jan. 1 of this year.
Fields is not a perfect quarterback, but he checks the same boxes as Mitchell Trubisky and many more. He has an NFL arm and is extremely athletic, but he’s also an established pocket passer. In fact, that’s where Fields looks most comfortable, almost too deliberate.
But the Bears – and their fans – will need to have patience. Fields must adjust to the speed and timing of the NFL and that process should not be rushed.
Only time will tell if Fields gets there, but time appears to be something the Bears used to improve their scouting/drafting process.
There was a strong belief Thursday night that a team would have to trade up to No. 4 to grab the fourth quarterback in the first round. A move that big would have cost the Bears a lot more than what they gave up to get to No. 11. This time, they did not get too aggressive – just reasonably aggressive. They were methodical and detailed in their process to get to the point where they could select their next quarterback.
And no, none of it guarantees that Justin Fields will be the answer the Bears have needed for over a century. But it sure seems like the organization learned from a crucial past mistake.