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Why Justin Fields might still have his Josh Allen explosion — just a year late

Justin Fields’ Year 3 development doesn’t mirror Josh Allen’s MVP campaign. But it does bear eerie similarities to Allen’s just before the Buffalo Bills quarterback exploded. Should the Chicago Bears take notice?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, I got my first look at a raw but immensely talented passer fight through ups and downs and eventually — before my eyes, in fact — morph into a solid quarterback.

His name was Josh Allen.

I saw him in Week 16 of his second season at Gillette Stadium taking on a Patriots team that was about to win the division for the millionth time in what we now know was the penultimate home start of Tom Brady’s Patriots career.

Allen was obviously nowhere near as polished as Brady — still isn’t — but the dumbfounding decisions and horridly placed throws I was expecting based on past watches weren’t there in this one. You could feel the former No. 8 overall pick learning as he went, battling his inexperience in real time to play efficient football.

It wasn’t all perfect in that game, nor was it in the following weeks. But as I watched him that night, I realized then and there he was going to be good.

And he was. So good that he would’ve won MVP the following year if it weren’t for some dude named Aaron Rodgers. And Allen’s still one of the best quarterbacks in football when he’s not inexplicably throwing the ball into crowds of defenders.

Why mention all that? Well, because Allen is one of everyone’s favorite comparisons for Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields both physically and in terms of their potential ceiling.

Naturally, everyone hoped Fields would show the massive breakout Allen had in his third season and take the league by storm, and that hasn’t happened, though Fields has indeed improved throughout the season.

With the No. 1 overall pick in the draft looming as well as a decision on a Fields fifth-year option or contract extension, logic says it’s more likely than not the Bears will move on from Fields and draft Caleb Williams or Drake Maye with the top pick.

And yet…

As I pondered Fields’ last three games of more consistent, if still flawed, play, a lightning bolt struck. Fields doesn’t resemble the fully-fledged monster version of Allen in Year 3. He’s more like what Allen ended 2019 as — a player whose ability to slowly harness their raw talent more consistently put them on the verge of a supernova. So naturally, I did some data-mining to see how those seasons compared — and found some very interesting results.

But first: why compare those two disparate seasons in the first place? Fields is a third-year quarterback, bottom line, and the fact you don’t know if he’s “the guy” or not essentially says he isn’t, meaning he’s not worth keeping if you have the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Remember, though, that Fields’ path to a third season was nowhere near as conventional as, say, Trevor Lawrence’s. While both dealt with coaching changes after rookie years where both were similarly rough around the edges, Lawrence got an experienced offensive head coach in Doug Pederson to oversee his development as well as a few upgrades to his surrounding talent (Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, Travis Etienne.)

Fields, meanwhile, was left with a gut-renovated roster under a new general manager, a first-time offensive play-caller in Luke Getsy and…Velus Jones Jr. for a weapons upgrade. The goal wasn’t to develop Fields; it was to turn the roster over completely and, most likely, draft a new quarterback within a few years unless Fields changed their minds. Of course, while Fields regressed in his timing and feel as a pocket passer while learning alongside Getsy, his pure talent made the Bears' offense functional, if not always efficient.

If you look at Fields’ 2023 season through that lens, you can perhaps understand why the Bears have preached patience and progress with him.

When you do that, the comparison between Fields’ Year 3 (Year 2 with Getsy) and Allen’s second year is striking, with Fields having the edge in several categories:

Justin Fields (year 3) vs. Josh Allen (Year 2)

 Justin Fields Year 3 (through 9 games) Josh Allen Year 2 (16 games) Josh Allen Year 3 (16 games)
 Justin Fields Year 3 (through 9 games) Josh Allen Year 2 (16 games) Josh Allen Year 3 (16 games)
TD% 5.1 4.3 6.5
INT% 2.4 2 1.7
Passing yards/gm 201.1 193.06 284
Rushing yards/gm 50.9 31.88 26.3
Adjusted completion % 76.1 71.7 79.1
Passer rating 91.8 85.3 107.2
QBR 48.1 49.4 76.6
PFF overall grade 75.1 64.2 90.9
PFF passing grade 69.9 61.9 89.9
EPA/CPOE 0.058 0.055 0.19
Sack rate 11.8 7.6 4.3
Pressure-to-sack rate 20.5 19.3 10.7
Time to throw (TTT) 3.3 2.93 2.99
Scrambles/gm 3.33 2.88 1.93
Fumbles/gm 0.78 0.88 0.563
Comparison of Justin Fields’ third NFL season (2023) to Josh Allen’s second season (2019), with Allen’s third season included as reference. Note: statistics are rate-adjusted due to discrepancy in games played.

Even more peripheral details about how they played reveal a kinship.

Allen was also a major fumbler, putting the ball on the ground 14 times (four lost) in 2019; Fields has four in nine games (also losing four) so far this year.

For people who criticize Fields for not targeting pass-catchers other than DJ Moore and Cole Kmet — a common reason for being skeptical of investing another receiver in Fields — Allen was the same.

In 2019, Allen targeted Cole Beasley and John Brown 110 and 102 times on his 435 pass attempts, respectively, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s a target share of about 25.2% and 23.4%. His next highest-targeted pass-catchers? Dawson Knox (48; 11% target share) and Devin Singletary (40; 9.1% of targets).

That also didn’t change in 2020 for Allen: he sent a whopping 166 of his 548 passes (30.3%) to Stefon Diggs, who joined the team that season, and 106 to Cole Beasley (19.3). After that, Gabe Davis was closest at 56 (10.2) followed by Brown again at 50 (9.1%).

Compare that to Fields in 2023 (236 attempts), who has thrown 68 targets to DJ Moore (28.8% share), 50 to Cole Kmet (21.2%), 28 to Darnell Mooney (11.9%) and Khalil Herbert (9.7%).

You can, of course, note the caveats of how much Allen threw the ball compared to Fields, which is a result both of the Bears preferring to run the ball more than the Bills (who were bad at it) and Fields simply not throwing as much whether due to sacks or scrambles. But the distribution is more or less the same.

Now, the comparison isn’t perfect, and there are questions about whether or not Fields can improve meaningfully long-term in a few areas.

First, Allen took plenty of sacks as a younger player, too, but he has always been better at avoiding them than Fields has been. Additionally, Fields has yet to have a season where he holds the ball for less than three seconds on average. A good portion of those plays are a result of his scrambles, but you could argue he needs to get rid of the ball more quickly regardless. Another big difference: Allen targeted the intermediate area of the field (between 10-20 yards) more frequently (20.4% of attempts) and with more success (61.7% completions, 59.7 yards per game) than Fields has (12.9% of attempts; 45.4% completions, 36.8 yards per game).

All of this is to say the two were similarly flawed players at these snapshots of their careers, though obviously Fields is a season further along in service time if not in linear development (for reasons we’ve laid out) and there’s no guarantee all of his flaws will magically be fixed.

Fields’ last three games, though, present the distinct impression of a player who is starting to “get it,” even accounting for continued questions about his misses (both physical and mental) as well as his playing style — all of which Allen faced, too.

The question: do the Bears agree, and does it matter even if they do?

One can take Ryan Poles saying the team has to be “blown away” by a quarterback to take them at the top of the draft this year in a few ways. For example, maybe they are amendable to keeping Fields and don’t want to trade him unless they have the sure thing, or perhaps they mean the quarterback class evaluation is all that matters, not Fields.

One can’t deny the promise of a quarterback on a rookie deal, especially one as talented as Caleb Williams, and the extra years it affords you to build an overpowered roster. If Poles looks at Williams’ tape and sees his own Patrick Mahomes — remember, Poles was with the Chiefs when they took Mahomes — who’d blame him for making that move? Fans would certainly forget their unease about moving on from Fields if Williams lived up to that bill.

Passing on a quarterback like that on the chance that Fields might break out in an Allen-esque fashion is a major leap of faith – one that could get Ryan Poles fired if he gets it wrong. Plus, perhaps another team might see Fields’ slowly realizing potential and give the Bears draft picks to find out for themselves.

And yet…

Four more data points will be collected on Fields for the rest of the season. If the Bears’ 7% possibility of making the playoffs somehow comes to pass, there will be even more. Should he maintain this level of play with a splashy performance against the Arizona Cardinals helping to boost the numbers, it will be clear by the end of the season that Fields has statistically improved over his 2022 season.

The Bears arguably have a better opportunity to make the playoffs next season with the more experienced Fields than a rookie – not that a rookie quarterback would mean they can’t make the playoffs, of course. Is that worth rolling the dice with a beefed-up roster to see if Fields can truly take the next step a la Allen or Jalen Hurts? Or is the key to taking the North and never giving it back making the long-term gamble that’s staring them in the face with a quarterback at No. 1?

Not that Chicago has any duty to take this into account, but Fields probably won’t reach those heights if he’s traded this offseason and has to learn a third offense in four years.

But there’s precedent for the idea that Fields could do it next season with continuity in the system – yes, this scenario involves keeping Luke Getsy as offensive coordinator – and another stellar young weapon.

This Sunday could represent another step along the path to that reality – or the end of it.