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Bears face potential quarterback dilemma for 2021 NFL Draft

With the likely postponement of the 2020 college football season, the Bears could face a tough choice if they draft a quarterback next year.

2020 NCAA Division I Football Championship Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Bears made a massive mistake in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Granted, many draft analysts had Mitchell Trubisky as the top quarterback in the class three years ago. Some had Deshaun Watson pegged as the draft’s No. 1 signal-caller, while very few had future MVP and Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes as that year’s top quarterback. The general consensus, though, was that the North Carolina gunslinger would be the first player selected at his position.

Many factors have contributed to Trubisky’s downfall in the NFL, as well as the respective successes of his aforementioned peers. Poor weapons from the get go, a lack of development in his processing abilities and mechanics, being rushed into starting prematurely into his development—which many Bears fans supported in the moment and would now likely retract.

In retrospect, one factor stands out as a possible concern in which Trubisky paled in comparison to his draft classmates: his collegiate resume.

Mahomes’ Texas Tech teams didn’t see significant success in the win-loss column, but he finished with 9,705 yards and 77 touchdowns in his two starting seasons. The real draw with him was his impressive tools and sky-high ceiling: the real argument for collegiate success comes from Watson, who was a two-year starter who made two national championship appearances, winning one of them. He topped 4,000 yards and 35 passing touchdowns in each of his starting seasons and finished with a 28-2 record.

Trubisky was a one-year starter who sat behind Marquise Williams, a solid enough college quarterback but one who went undrafted in 2015 and most recently played as a third-stringer in the XFL with the New York Guardians.

That’s not necessarily to say that Trubisky’s inability to live up to the first-round hype was blatantly obvious from the start. He did play well in his one year as a starter and beat two ranked teams in the process, and he showed a lot of the tools that teams look for in a franchise quarterback. However, he never got his team to reach incredible heights in his singular starting campaign.

More importantly, though, he was a raw passer with little experience as a starter, and that concern ties in with the uncertainty of the 2021 draft.

With numerous major conferences, including the Big Ten and the Pac-12, postponing the fall college football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, top draft prospects will be faced with the difficult decision of sitting out the upcoming year in preparation for the draft, waiting for the season to start and risk an injury late in the draft process, or transferring to another school in hopes that that team’s conference doesn’t cancel play.

The Bears are likely to target a quarterback in the first round of next year’s draft, and if college football doesn’t take place this year, they would likely have to rely heavily on a quarterback with just one season of starting play.

Assuming Trevor Lawrence is out of the Bears’ reach, most of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 class don’t have multiple full seasons as starters yet. Though the circumstances are vastly different from Trubisky having just one year as a starter, the end result is the same: the quarterbacks are still fairly unproven.

Making such a decision would not be the Bears’ fault by any means. NFL teams are still adjusting to this new normal that the pandemic has brought upon them, and the draft process will likely be severely impacted by current social distancing regulations, much more so than the cancelled Pro Days and in-person visits that took place in the 2020 draft. As unfortunate as the circumstances may be, teams are going to have to play the hand they’re dealt, and part of that could include taking a risk on a more unproven prospect.

This concern particularly rings true with two top prospects: Justin Fields and Trey Lance. Both put together fantastic campaigns and led their respective teams to undefeated regular seasons, but it appears likely that they will enter the draft with just one season of starting play.

Since 2000, only five quarterbacks have been selected in the first round after starting just one season at the collegiate level. Of those five players, two of them—Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins—were selected in the 2019 draft, so the jury is still out on a good chunk of a small sample size. The other three quarterbacks were Trubisky, Cam Newton and Mark Sanchez. Of those three players, Newton is the only player to have sustained long-term success in the NFL. Ryan Tannehill missed the cut, having started eight games in 2010 before taking over the starting job full time in 2011.

That said, selecting one-year starters is still a risky path to go down. There is plenty of upside in making such a decision, as Newton developed into an MVP, a three-time Pro Bowler and a quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl. Murray had an impressive rookie season that saw him named the Offensive Rookie of the Year and has generated plenty of buzz heading into his sophomore campaign. In drafting a one-year starter, however, a team is taking a risk on a player with little experience and, more often than not, a raw skill set.

While somewhat concerning in Fields’ case, the Ohio State signal-caller was at least able to dominate and finish as a Heisman finalist against top-tier competition.

The real concern of a postponed 2020 season comes with Lance, who was admittedly very good last season, but the fact still remains that he is an FCS quarterback with just one season of notable tape to go off of. Throw in the fact that the North Dakota State redshirt sophomore is still raw from a decision-making and mechanical standpoint, and there’s valid room for concern.

This dilemma affects numerous other quarterbacks who have received early-round buzz. Iowa State’s Brock Purdy took over as the starter for eight games in 2018. Georgia’s Jamie Newman started four games in 2018, but currently has just one full season of starter play. Even Florida’s Kyle Trask, viewed by some as a potential breakout candidate heading into 2020, was a backup for the first three games of 2019 and had limited playing experience before that point.

The outlook of the upcoming college football season is a complete crapshoot at this point, but as it currently stands, it appears likely that there may not be games played until the spring. If that were to be the case, then it would make life much harder for NFL teams preparing for the 2021 draft. In an offseason where many expect the Bears to make a play at a young quarterback, the unusual circumstances could force their hand into taking a similar risk to the one they took on Trubisky; one that did not pay off.