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Justin Fields Still Hasn’t Beaten the Odds

Justin Fields has earned praise for his toughness and for his athleticism. His “football character” is obvious. The question remains, however, can he consistently deliver on the field itself.

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Three months ago, I argued that Justin Fields was not beating the odds stacked against him when he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2021. That piece was, itself, a follow-up to the piece I had written in April on how unlikely it was that he was going to suddenly break out in 2022. Fields has now finished two full years in the NFL and has played in 27 games. The reasons that I doubted his fortunes are worth re-evaluating. I argued that he had not played well to date, that he had inadequate support, and that the manager who drafted him had a suspect pedigree. As I evaluate those reasons with updated information, I also intend to offer greater context on the situation for new quarterbacks in the NFL.

Fields is not Actually Playing Well

I want to get the most controversial aspect of this analysis out of the way first. Fields has been an explosive runner on the field, and he has made a number of big connections. However, he has also taken a number of sacks and has outright missed opportunities. As a result, his passer rating for the 2022 season (85.2) places him 25th among qualifying quarterbacks per Pro Football Reference. Despite this, some believe that he has value that is not readily captured.

What about what he offers with his legs? Adding together all plays where the quarterback is directly involved (passes, rushes, and sacks), how does Fields compare to his peers? Does he get a first down for his team an adequate number of times? Obviously, the league average in this number has to be a little above 33.3%, simply because teams that don’t hit that number don’t stay on the field and don’t keep getting snaps. I pulled complete numbers for every quarterback from 2017-2022 (six seasons of football) and limited myself only to quarterbacks with at 50 total snaps where they were directly involved (plus 2022 Trey Lance at 49 because I couldn’t help myself). On a whole, there are more than a hundred thousand snaps and just around 33.3% of those snaps went for a first down. Justin Fields in 2022 ranks 221st of 322 with only a 29.3% first-down rate. In other words, he’s actually in the bottom third in terms of total efficiency. If I limit the field to only the 133 quarterbacks with at least 500 involved snaps, he ranks 123rd.

Maybe first downs are not a fair measure? After all, he’s a big-play specialist. It is possible that Fields doesn’t get as many first downs but he makes up for it with “boom” plays. We can add together all of the quarterbacks’ earned yards (on the ground and in the air, subtracting sack yardage) and divide it by the total number of involved snaps to get a yards-per-snap number. This whole group offers a 6.12 yards per snap average. Fields is tied with Jacoby Brissett at 5.68 yards per snap, or 190th out of 322. That’s better, but he’s still in the bottom half behind New England’s version of Cam Newton and the 2018 edition of Sam Darnold that played for the Jets. He’s also 113th out of the 133 quarterbacks with at least 500 involved snaps.

What about the classic analytic measure of QB performance, adjusted net yards per attempt? Adding a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns, a 45-yard penalty for interceptions (and half of that for fumbles based on the unpredictability of fumble recoveries), we can come up with adjusted net yards per involved snap. As a group, the quarterbacks turn in 5.78 ANY/IS. Fields comes in at 5.01, placing him 197th out of 322. That’s exactly between Case Keenum’s 2018 season for Denver (4.99) and Case Keenum’s 2021 season for Cleveland (5.03). “Kind of like Case Keenum” is not a ringing endorsement of a quarterback, sadly. He’s also 115th out of the 133 with more snaps, in the same range as with the other metrics.

In a desperate attempt to save Fields from his offensive line and thus prove at least slightly more considerate than Matt Nagy, we can look at only positive plays. When we look at total yards earned (on the ground and in the air) and divided that number by completions and rushing attempts, we remove sacks and incompletions from the equation. Dropped passes and tipped balls are no longer a factor. Using the same pools for consistency (although obviously each of these players no longer has 50 positive plays), Fields now ties with the version of Jared Goff who played for the 2020 Rams at 215th out of 322 with 9.62 yards per positive play; the median is 10.06 and the mean of all included plays is 10.21 yards per positive play, and Fields is below both numbers. Narrowing it down to the “500 snap” players, Fields is 110th out of 133.

Ultimately, Fields has made big plays in 2022, but on average he moved the ball less efficiently, generated fewer yards, and had a worse boom-to-bust ratio than even a moderately capable average quarterback in the modern NFL.

Could Fields suddenly start playing better? Yes, he could. He could also start playing worse. I’ve previously pointed out that quarterbacks almost never have a career passer rating higher than the best mark set by their first four games. Fields (79.7 for his career) is on a track to stay well below that number (91.9), but it is possible to come up with a five-game stretch wherein he beats that number (from New England to Atlanta). Unfortunately, his progression has not been linear, and three of those “up” games were against some of the worst defenses in the league.

Right now, Fields does make big plays. He also fumbles and takes sacks, and his boom to bust ratio is not as favorable as it needs to be for him to be a reliable “above average” starter. For those who prefer this presentation, the table below offers Fields’ numbers and compares him to the median of all quarterbacks with 50+ involved snaps (with the median of all quarterbacks with 500+ involved snaps). It then shares his relative rank in each category.

Fields vs Peers

Justin Fields Median (Top 133) vs. all QBs with 50+ IS vs. all QBs with 500+ IS
Justin Fields Median (Top 133) vs. all QBs with 50+ IS vs. all QBs with 500+ IS
Passer Rating: 85.2 87.55 (99.3) 181/322 112/133
1D Efficiency: 29.3% 31.9% (34.3%) 221/322 123/133
Yards/Involved Snap: 5.68 5.86 (6.34) 190/322 113/133
ANY/IS: 5.01 5.46 (6.2) 197/322 115/133
Positive Yards/Play: 9.62 10.07 (10.96) 215/322 110/133

Fields has a Poor Team Around Him

I would assert that most of his struggles are not entirely of his own doing, because the talent around him was poor to begin with and Ryan Poles did little to help Fields with the admittedly limited resources he had been left to work with. At least some of the sacks that Fields has suffered must be because of his offensive line, and the receivers assembled around him are a farrago of castoffs and overdrafts, third-stringers and role-players.

Khalil Herbert’s yards per rush (5.7) lead all running backs per TeamRankings, and David Montgomery has been an adequate alternative to Herbert as well as an effective asset in the passing game. Added with Fields’ own league-leading yards-per-attempt, and it’s clear that the running offense in Chicago is strong.

However, the passing game is another matter. While Pro Football Reference reports that the Bears have only suffered a 4.7% rate of dropped passes (tied for the ninth-lowest rate in the league), that single number doesn’t tell the full story. Besides Cole Kmet–who is finally looking like he might be a legitimate (if unimpressive) tight end–there are not many reliable weapons around Fields, either. Darnell Mooney is 50th in the league for yards per catch and is essentially WR2 material when he can stay healthy, but that has been a struggle for him. Equanimeous St. Brown was forced to step up, but his 8.5 yards per target show that he is far more “extra wide receiver” than “offensive game-changer”. Likewise, Dante Pettis and Byron Pringle are doing little to tilt the field, and the Steelers have to be very happy to have received what turned out to be the 32nd pick in the draft for Chase Claypool (whose 4.8 yards per target number would be concerning from a player who had cost far less). N’Keal Harry has shown little to suggest that he is the answer at receiver, either, and so far Velus Jones has more fumbles than touchdowns. Could any of these players suddenly turn around? Yes. Have any of them–besides possibly Kmet–offered Fields a reliable safety valve this season? Not really. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate cause from effect, and Nathan Peterman hardly serves as a “replacement-level” baseline of performance to see what these same players would be like with a different starter.

On the offensive line, fifth-round pick Braxton Jones has played every snap, and the Bears seem locked into the unimpressive Sam Mustipher (98.74% of snaps). After that, Cody Whitehair, Larry Borom, and Teven Jenkins have been competing for the “I like this guy if only he can stay healthy” award (with none making it to two-thirds of the snaps). Riley Reiff, Michael Schofield, and Lucas Patrick have filled the role of “he was okay for another team so let’s settle for now” that Chicago seems to be required to have on their O-line. Alex Leatherwood has apparently neither been healthy nor was he okay for another team, but he still has a jersey and a paycheck.

As critical as anyone might want to be about Fields, it is really difficult to look at the players in front of him and blame Fields for saying “you know, I’m just going to run for my life and see what happens.” Unfortunately, “what happens” has been largely a few highlight reel moments and a lot of unsuccessful drives.

Ultimately, the team is poorly assembled. Maybe it will get better in 2023 with the wealth of resources available to Poles, but at the moment it is very hard to say that Fields was in a position to show his best play this season. He was placed in a profoundly hostile “quarterback ecosystem” in which to try to thrive.

The Bears’ Mismanagement

A lot goes into a team reaching the point where it earns the first overall pick in the draft. The Bears assembled by Ryan Pace had little offensive talent and the move to draft Justin Fields sapped draft resources that might have remedied that at least in part. The team carried a number of unhealthy contracts and had spending tilted toward the defense. The situation at the start of 2022 wasn’t good. However, in the most recent draft two second-round picks were spent before Poles invested in the offense, and both were spent on defensive backs. The highest pick spent on an offensive player went into a return specialist who was always going to need time to adjust to the NFL if it happens at all. Ryan Pace has a history of setting up quarterbacks to fail, and it is clear that Justin Fields suffered from this in his first year. That does not mean that Ryan Poles made a good-faith effort to help Fields this season, though.

Regardless of who receives the most blame, it is clear that from basically any objective measure, Justin Fields is struggling. He has missed multiple games due to injury, a trend that is not likely to be remedied if he continues his current style of play. When he does play, he is less efficient than most quarterbacks and even his positive plays are “on net” less positive than the norm.