Justin Fields is taking (another) redshirt in 2022

Justin Fields - 2022 Season Preview
Chicago Bears - 2022 NFL Season Preview

Justin Fields is taking (another) redshirt in 2022

The most valuable asset in professional sports is a quarterback on a rookie contract.

The phrase is a cliche by now, but it also has the benefit of being true.

Justin Fields, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, will average just $4.7 million annually over the first four years of his rookie deal.

The Chicago Bears failed to take advantage of the first of Fields’ cheap years, posting a 6-11 record in 2021 that got general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy fired. And based on how new GM Ryan Poles and HC Matt Eberflus conducted their offseason, the Bears are unlikely to benefit from Fields’ reduced rate in 2022, either.

Chicago is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Thanks to the mismanagement of the team’s previous decision-makers, a rebuild makes the most sense for the Bears. Starting over from scratch will put Chicago in the best long-term position.

But how will tearing down to the studs affect Fields’ development?

From a statistical standpoint, Fields was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last season. He completed only 59% of his passes for seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and his 26.4 QBR was the lowest in the NFL.

But the Ohio State product didn’t forget how to play quarterback overnight. While Fields certainly caused a lot of unforced errors, he wasn’t dealt a great hand in his rookie campaign.

His so-called No. 1 wide receiver, Allen Robinson, missed five games and posted the worst statistical season of his career.

Fields’ offensive line played decently well at times but looked totally unprepared at others. And Nagy’s play-calling didn’t do him any favors.

Bad news for Fields in Year 2: Those roster problems are unlikely to improve.

Good news for Fields in Year 2: Eberflus and new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy seem to be designing an offense that will play to Fields’ strengths.

“I think twofold: the deep ball and then the ability to run with the ball,” Eberflus said in May when asked how Fields’ skills can attack defenses. “I think those things stretch you, so when you get stretched vertically and horizontally like that, it always causes stressors on a defense. It doesn’t matter what kind of style you’re running.”

Even if a new offensive system and regression to the mean are in store for Fields, he’ll still largely be asked to succeed on his own next season. Hampered by an aging, depleted roster and a poor salary-cap situation, Poles and Co. decided to bite the bullet in 2022.

This season, the Bears will have nearly $53 million in dead money on their books. A huge chunk of that total ($24 million) is a result of trading edge rusher Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers in exchange for second- and sixth-round selections. Nick Foles, Eddie Goldman, Andy Dalton, Jimmy Graham, and a cavalcade of other veterans will also take up financial space on Chicago’s ledger despite no longer being on the team.

By taking those hits now, the Bears are freeing themselves up to add more talent in the 2023 offseason. Chicago projects to have the most cap space in the NFL next year, with almost $100 million in reserves. If they part ways with older players like Robert Quinn, Eddie Jackson, and Cody Whitehair between now and then, the Bears could have nearly $120 million to spend.

In 2022, though, Chicago took a restrained approach to free agency. While they signed 18 players (tied for eighth-most in the NFL), the Bears spent only $55 million in total (sixth-least). Poles added players at the low end of the cost spectrum, signing five veterans with annual salaries between $3 million and $6 million: DL Justin Jones, WR Byron Pringle, OL Lucas Patrick, EDGE Al Quadin-Muhammad, and LB Nicholas Morrow.

In a weird way, Poles may have spent too much in free agency. Chicago’s free agent additions – even the cheap ones – mean the Bears are unlikely to recoup any compensatory draft picks next offseason. Had they stuck to players below the $3 million range or waited until after the compensatory deadline to add more help, Chicago could have secured a third-round pick in exchange for losing Robinson to the Los Angeles Rams.

Poles was already without first- and fourth-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft due to Pace’s trade-up for Fields last year. Yet he still made it a point to get more bites at the apple. On Day 3 of the draft, Poles traded down four times and added five additional picks, bringing the Bears’ total selection haul to 11.

The draft success rate is pretty similar across the league. Acquiring more lottery tickets is always a sound strategy, especially for teams like the Bears that won’t contend in the short term.

Chicago added cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker with its first two choices, and while teams can never have enough help in the secondary, Poles could have used at least one of those picks to help out Fields on the offensive side of the ball. Chicago did draft four offensive linemen, but they didn’t take the first one until Round 5. Velus Jones Jr., the only pass catcher the Bears selected, is already 25 years old.

Fields’ wide receiver group – presumably led by Darnell Mooney, Pringle, Jones Jr., and Equanimeous St. Brown – is uninspiring. But it arguably has more upside than Chicago’s current offensive line. The Bears only added Patrick and Dakota Dozier to help out up front, and they’re relying on Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom at tackle.

Even if Chicago didn’t want to bring in legitimate wide receiver help this offseason, it would have been wise to invest in the offensive line. Fields never looked comfortable in 2021, and now he’ll be playing behind an even worse front five.

Poles says his confidence in Fields is “sky high,” and he’s excited about his second-year quarterback. “We’re all in on Justin,” Poles said in May. “I believe in Justin. Our coaches believe in Justin. Like I said from the beginning, we’re going to set him up to succeed.”

That very well may be true, but the Bears simply weren’t in a position to surround Fields with a better supporting cast heading into 2022. The sins of the previous regime were too great, and Poles and Eberflus will need the upcoming season to dig the franchise out of a hole.

By slow-playing his roster build, Poles has created optionality for the Bears. If Fields shows any sort of development next year, Chicago will have plenty of cap space to add veterans – and they’d likely be a prime destination for offensive free agents.

However, if Fields bottoms out again in 2022, the Bears should have the means to upgrade under center. Any new general manager/head coach tandem is going to want to pick their own quarterback – unless the incumbent gives them a strong reason not to. Thanks to a robust 2023 QB draft class, Poles should have the chance to pick his guy and truly start rebuilding next season if Fields struggles.

Fields is caught in the middle of a rebuilding effort. His front office is doing things the right way, but that will not do much for his progress. If he wants to prove he’s the Bears’ long-term option under center, Fields will have to do it on his own.