Congratulations to the Chicago Bears for being in quarterback limbo once again. Nobody does it like they do.
We don't need to relitigate all of what has led the Bears to this point with Justin Fields. It's been written about and talked about ad nauseam since the minute Fields was drafted. Two years of turnstile offensive line play and a receiver corps made of WR4s, with an offensive scheme change after his rookie season, gives you the gist.
Chicago has been an unforgiving environment for a young quarterback, a situation the Bears brought upon themselves by stripping the roster down for parts and failing to draft impact skill-position players.
At the same time, things have been different this season. Those past teams that could have ruined Fields aren't this season's team. The 2023 Bears, believe it or not, have functional offensive line play. DJ Moore has been a legit starting NFL wide receiver. Even the team's play-calling has remained consistent, with Luke Getsy keeping his job from last season.
The offense is far from perfect, but it's a workable one — an offense good enough to see what the quarterback is all about.
Fields' Wonky Development
From a production standpoint, Fields hasn't been any better in 2023.
According to TruMedia, Fields is at -0.08 EPA per dropback on the season, down slightly from his -0.01 finish last season. He also has a career-low explosive play percentage (runs of at least 12 yards, passes of at least 16 yards).
Conversely, Fields' success rate has improved slightly from 42.4 percent in 2022 to 43.3 percent in 2023. He's also cut his interception rate down to 2.7 percent.
So, in exchange for a bit of consistency, Fields has lost as much or more in terms of explosive play potential. If it were an even exchange, that would be fine. However, it doesn't feel like the modicum of consistency Fields has added outweighs the dip in game-changing plays.
It's never as cut and dry as the numbers might suggest. There's a case that Fields has made some improvements that haven't been born out in the numbers yet.
Fields is playing with more confidence and in-pocket creativity than ever before. There are flashes of toughness and problem-solving from within the pocket that weren't there before.
In his first two seasons, Fields would always look to bail at the first sign of things going south. Now, he has the wherewithal to stick in the pocket and make throws with bodies swarming around him occasionally.
But that captures the Fields conundrum so perfectly. You can see what should make him a good quarterback when you watch him play. He's athletic. He has a talented arm. And there are legitimate signs of growth. You want to buy in. It's just that Fields' development has been too slow and insignificant to fully realize all the potential he has.
Three years in, he's still more of an idea than a functioning quarterback. He might be good down the line, but he's too far away from that end to be confident he will get there.
In a vacuum, there is plenty of reason to stick with a player like that. Fields' potential, even if unrealized, is immense, and his slow crawl toward becoming a complete passer is encouraging.
In reality, if you're going to have uncertainty and immense potential at quarterback anyway, you should reset the clock. Give the organization a breath of fresh air and save some money in the meantime. It's two birds with one stone.
The Bears are in the perfect position to do that.
With the Carolina Panthers likely gift-wrapping the first-overall pick for Chicago, the Bears will have their pick of Caleb Williams or Drake Maye.
Debating which is the better choice is for a different article, but the Bears could take either one and have a quarterback with as much star potential as Fields while also being younger and cheaper for the next four years.
It's the obvious path for a Bears team at least two years from contending for a division title.
Chicago's Next Steps
That leads to a natural question: What do the Bears do with Fields?
Chicago has to trade him — plain and simple. Keeping Fields around doesn't do a whole lot for anyone. There's value in a good, athletic backup quarterback with starting reps under his belt, but it's uncomfortable to ask a former first-round pick still on his rookie deal to be that player. There's no need to create an awkward working environment when it can be avoided.
The Bears should also want to trade Fields because they can get a good return. Fields isn’t a clear-cut franchise quarterback, but he is a starting-caliber quarterback with untapped potential in a league that does not have 32 of those guys lying around. Someone will roll the dice with a top-100 pick in a trade.
I spoke with former general manager and The 33rd Team analyst Mike Tannenbaum about that dynamic and what kind of return the Bears should secure.
"Ideally, you are looking to get a second-round pick. If you have to go down to a third-round pick, you do it," Tannenbaum said.
That tracks with the compensation we've seen from similar deals in the past few seasons.
In 2022, the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Panthers for picks in the second, fourth and sixth rounds. Darnold was in the same "not good, but you can see it" category as Fields.
The Colts effectively swapped second-round picks and traded two third-round picks to the Philadelphia Eagles for Carson Wentz in 2021. Wentz's career was a little more complicated, but he still largely fits under the "talented, yet imperfect" umbrella.
A second or third-round pick with some weird late Day 3 pick shuffling sounds about right for Fields.
That's all contingent on timing, specifically around the NFL Draft. The Darnold and Wentz trades happened before the Draft. That's the window the Bears need to shoot for to get a similar deal done.
"You want to get a deal done as early into the new league year as possible," Tannenbaum said. "That's how you're going to get the most value. Otherwise, if you wait [until after the Draft], teams might get their quarterback elsewhere."
In short, the Bears need to offload Fields while there's still a market for open quarterback spots.
While the draft is still months away, it does give us an inkling of which teams might be in the market for a quarterback. Whichever team lands the second-overall pick will almost certainly bow out of the Fields conversations.
Right now, that is the New England Patriots, and it's hard to see the other teams "catching" them in the draft order.
There will be many other quarterback-needy teams without access to a clear-cut star prospect.
The Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Las Vegas Raiders all feel like locks to be in the market for a guy like Fields. The Minnesota Vikings would also be, if not for being the Bears' division rivals. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers could be a sneaky candidate.
None of those teams have clear long-term answers at quarterback, but they won't be anywhere near the top of the draft to secure Maye or Williams.
Fields' Ideal Landing Spot
Of that bunch, the Atlanta Falcons are the ideal trade target if the Bears have Fields' best interests in mind. The Falcons, frustrating as they are, have talent. Atlanta is a ready-made offense.
Drake London is a legit No. 1 receiver, Kyle Pitts is a difference-maker at tight end, and the two-head backfield of Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier is fierce. The offensive line is also gelling after a shaky start to the year. Even the defense is figuring itself out under defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.
Fields also makes too much sense for Arthur Smith's offense. Think about what Smith did with Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee. The two built the Titans' offense out of downhill runs and hard play-action from the pocket to target the middle of the field.
Fields would require more boot than in-pocket play-action and a heavier dose of the quarterback run game, but that's something we've seen Smith do well with Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder to varying degrees.
Does all of that guarantee Fields will save the Falcons (or any other team)? Of course not. If there were that kind of certainty with Fields, he wouldn't be on the trading block to begin with.
Chicago could keep him and draft Marvin Harrison Jr., but the Bears aren't on the right timeline to see through Fields' development. The Falcons can offer Fields an immediate boost in surrounding talent to see what he's capable of.
That's the Fields question in a nutshell. He’s not good enough to stave off resetting the timeline with a first-overall pick at quarterback. Still, he's a capable starter with an upside worth gambling on for teams that feel like they are a quarterback away.
Whatever happens to Fields this offseason, he deserves a legitimate chance to prove his mettle. Quarterbacks with Fields' athletic profile and arm talent come around rarely. Finding out whether he can unlock that potential is a worthwhile endeavor.
It's just time to accept that Fields will have to prove himself somewhere other than Chicago.