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Pros and cons of Bears keeping Justin Fields

WCG’s lead draft analyst makes his cases FOR and AGAINST the Bears sticking with Justin Fields at QB.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

The hot debate in Chicagoland is simple: should the Bears keep Justin Fields as their quarterback, or should they trade him and select a new quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft?

Every blogger, analyst, beat reporter or commentator will tell you what they think the Bears should do, if they haven’t already. That’s not what I’m going to try to do. Instead, I’m going to try to highlight the reasoning both FOR and AGAINST Chicago keeping Fields. In fact, I made sure both arguments are the exact same length in word count for the sake of parity.

That said, here are my pros and cons of the Bears keeping Justin Fields as their quarterback and forgoing to draft one early in the 2024 draft.

Pros

If there’s one thing both sides can agree on, it’s that Justin Fields was dealt a bad hand.

His rookie year was spent with a regime whose last-ditch efforts to field a competitive team blew up in their face. It was clear since the Bears’ 6-game losing streak in 2020 that Matt Nagy wasn’t the best head coach for the team, nor was Ryan Pace the best general manager. They had little draft capital due to Pace’s aggressive tendencies, and they had an aging roster with very few long-term building blocks.

Then, Fields had to learn a new system when new head coach Matt Eberflus brought offensive coordinator Luke Getsy to town. Their second-leading wide receiver in 2022 was Equanimeous St. Brown — if that’s not indicative of a poor receiver room, I don’t know what is — and the offensive line saw the likes of Sam Mustipher, Riley Reiff and Larry Borom start more than half of the team’s game. The only starting offensive lineman to play all 17 games was Braxton Jones, who admittedly surpassed all expectations, but was still an FCS fifth-round rookie who had his inconsistencies.

Fast forward to now, and Fields is in a better situation to succeed. He has DJ Moore to throw to as his WR1. The offensive line has improved with the additions of Darnell Wright and Nate Davis, as well as the development of Braxton Jones and Teven Jenkins. Barring a miracle push to close out the year, the Bears will probably have two top-10 selections in the 2024 NFL Draft to work with. They also have a ton of money to work with this offseason.

If there’s any time to push for a competitive playoff team, it’s in 2024 with Fields in the last year of his rookie contract.

The team is on the upswing now, having won three of their last four games. They have a ton of resources to work with, including what figures to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. With that pick, they could either select Ohio State superstar wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. or trade down for a massive haul, one potentially even larger than the deal they received to move down from the top spot in 2023.

The possibilities the Bears have in the 2024 draft while keeping Fields are endless. What about a tandem of MHJ and Laiatu Latu? What about Malik Nabers and Jer’Zhan Newton? Brock Bowers and Jared Verse, anyone? Maybe you throw in Olu Fashanu or Joe Alt with one of those picks, if you want. If you keep Fields, you’re surrounding your quarterback with more young talent in the short-term than you would if you absolutely must use one of those picks on a QB.

If you do trade down, there’s the chance you can repeat a similar process to what Chicago has accomplished this year. You would be trading with a team who would be starting a rookie quarterback in 2024 and would certainly have to receive a 2025 first-round pick in a deal. What if that team stinks it up, and the Bears get another high pick from the trade like they will from the Panthers this year? What if you can acquire another star veteran player like they did with DJ Moore last offseason? Maxx Crosby from the Raiders, anyone? How about someone like Chris Lindstrom from the Falcons or Terry McLaurin from the Commanders?

That way, you give Fields one more shot and give him what is clearly the best team he’s had during his time with the Bears to date. If he takes that leap, you have a talented roster in 2024 with draft capital to burn. If not, you have two first-round picks in 2025, and you get to try this all again next year. The likes of Shedeur Sanders, Quinn Ewers and J.J. McCarthy could all be returning to school, along with names like Cade Klubnik and Conner Weigman. There’s no “oh, this guy is easily QB1 in next year’s class” prospect, but there are seriously talented quarterbacks with tools. Odds are at least one of them will separate themselves from the pack.

There’s no denying Fields’ physical ability. With his arm strength, his elite athleticism, and his contact balance as a runner, he quite easily is the most athletically gifted quarterback in Bears history. Even with less-than-ideal situations, he has been able to make plays that few, if any, in the NFL are capable of making. From a tape analysis perspective, his pocket awareness is improving and has complemented his agility well this season. Plus, wins are starting to pile up for Fields, even if it took him a while to do so.

Another aspect of this decision: what if Caleb Williams or Drake Maye are worse than Fields? The haul you would get for keeping Fields and trading down from No. 1 is much bigger than what you’d get if you kept No. 1 and traded Fields. Having two top-10 picks to add to an improving roster alongside a quarterback you’ve seen play three seasons of NFL football has to be a comfortable feeling.

Chicago already has some star players locked in for the long haul like DJ Moore, Montez Sweat and T.J. Edwards. They have the chance to retain Jaylon Johnson at cornerback, too. Young pieces like Darnell Wright, Teven Jenkins, Braxton Jones, Gervon Dexter, Tyrique Stevenson, Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon are all making their presence felt. There’s a legitimate young core in the Windy City, and by all accounts, they’re all buying in with Fields.

You have some serious pieces in place for the Bears to be successful going forward. You’ll also have two top-10 draft picks this year, as well as $64.7 million in cap space to work with, as of this writing (that number will likely increase as postseason cuts are made). We’ve all seen the flashes that Fields has shown at quarterback with what have been terrible rosters in 2021 and 2022.

We’ve seen what he can do with a young, ascending group in 2023. Imagine the damage he can do with this roster in place, as well as all of these other resources Chicago has at their disposal. There’s potential for a serious run.

Should the Bears keep Justin Fields as their quarterback, they will likely be more competitive in 2024 than they would be having traded him.

Cons

While keeping him probably gives the Bears a better roster in 2024, the biggest argument against keeping Justin Fields is that his presence will tie them down once his rookie deal is up.

Fields will still be on his rookie deal in 2024, providing plenty of flexibility for the offseason ahead. But they’ll have to decide on his fifth-year option shortly, and should they accept it, they’ll be on the books for over $20 million in 2025. That’s on the lower end for starting quarterback contracts, but it’s still nearly $14 million more than what his cap hit will be in 2024. That’s about the cost of a good starting edge rusher or a star interior offensive or defensive lineman.

Then, the extension and the franchise tag come into play. Fields’ current projected marked value from Spotrac gives him a $43.9 million annual salary, which would make him the 9th-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. They’ll have the option of a franchise tag, which costs $35.9 million in 2024 and will likely be even higher in 2026. That’s a lower cost but still a very steep price.

In today’s NFL, it’s a no-brainer to pay great quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts all led their teams to the Super Bowl, so of course they’ll get massive contract extensions after their rookie deal. Lamar Jackson won an MVP during his rookie deal, and Josh Allen and Justin Herbert are both Pro Bowlers. They’ve all received and earned massive contract extensions.

Is Fields at that caliber right now? All signs point to no.

Granted, Fields has been dealt a bad hand. All the surroundings previously mentioned have certainly hurt his development and forced the Bears to rely on him way too much, way too early. However, he simply isn’t a top-10 QB in the league this year, and Chicago has to make the decision whether or not to keep him very soon.

There are still question marks with Fields, even in Year 3. He’s won two of his last three since returning from injury, but will that be sustainable to close out the year? Is that enough to overlook the fact his current starting record is 8-26 (QB winz duh, I know, but that’s an alarming number)? What about the faction his interception ratio was the worst in the NFL in 2021, the second-worst in 2022 and tied for the 7th-worst in 2023? What about the fact that he has the most fumbles by a QB since 2021, and the second-most total is a whole 6 fumbles behind him?

Fields still makes many of the same mistakes he did earlier in his career. Most notably: his internal clock seems a tad slow in terms of processing coverages and going through progressions, and he still turns the ball over at an alarming rate.

Were this a normal situation, the Bears would keep Fields and give him another shot in 2024, and nobody would think twice about it. But since they have the first pick in the 2024 draft due to having acquired Carolina’s draft pick, this is a conversation that needs to happen.

The No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft — which the Bears currently have a 95% chance to get, per ESPN’s analytics — will make just under $7 million in 2024. While that’s nearly $1 million more than what Fields will make next year, the gap between him and the No. 1 pick will skyrocket in time. If you draft a quarterback in Round 1, you have three more years of one of the most sought-after possessions in sports: a quarterback on a rookie contract.

The long-term possibilities you can pursue building around a QB on a rookie deal are endless. You’ll have a way easier time retaining your own young talent with a rookie QB, of which the Bears are starting to build a nice group. Remember how active the Bears were in free agency this year, even with the dead cap they had to eat on Ryan Pace’s bad contracts? Yeah, imagine three more years of that. You’d just be substituting Pace’s bad deals with Poles’ new contracts and would have the chance to build a genuine superteam. If the QB pick hits, you’re competing for the Super Bowl with that roster.

None of this is even including the evaluations of Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. Williams has a lot of the same traits as Fields: he’s creative out of structure, he’s athletic (though not as athletic as JF1, he’s close), and he has a cannon of an arm, even more so than Fields does. The downfield accuracy is also very good, and his accomplishments in college speak for themselves.

Granted, Williams also tends to struggle with holding onto the ball too long and playing hero ball. But that becomes a lot more palatable when you’re not paying him over $40 million a year like you soon would be with Fields. Given Williams’ age and his tremendous talent, as well as Fields being in Year 3 of his NFL career and still have the same problems, the ceiling is higher with him than it is with Fields.

Maye himself is no slouch, and he’ll be firmly in the running for the QB1 role. He’s more of a traditional pocket passer and is a better distributor and game-manager than Williams is. He also has a cannon of an arm, the ideal quarterback body type at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and he’s also an above-average athlete at his position.

The North Carolina product has drawn comparisons to Justin Herbert, who is widely considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league. There are still issues with Maye past his first read, as there were with Herbert coming out. The ceiling isn’t higher than Williams’ ceiling, but Maye’s floor is arguably higher. If those comparisons to Herbert ring true, then his ceiling will be higher than Fields’, too.

Whoever their QB1 is in this class, the Bears will have the guaranteed opportunity to draft him. There’s no guarantee they’ll have that chance if they stick with Fields for 2024 and it doesn’t work out.

The Bears have a near-guaranteed chance at their pick of two of the most talented quarterback prospects to enter the draft this decade. Will they really pass that up in favor of an inconsistent quarterback who will be significantly more expensive going forward?

In conclusion

Who won? Who’s next? You decide! Epic Rap Battles of History!

This article was never meant for me to sway your opinion one way or the other. Rather, it’s to show that there’s legitimate merit in both sides of the Justin Fields argument. I tried my best to remove bias from my reasoning, and while that’ll never be fully possible as long as a human with emotions is writing these pieces (much less a wreck like me), I feel as though I was able to show both sides of the coin.

The Bears face a tough decision in terms of what they’ll do at the quarterback position this offseason. I’m just glad I won’t be the one who has to make it.