Bears Should Move on from Justin Fields

| January 2nd, 2024

The Bears still play one more game this season, but not much is riding on it. They’ve already been eliminated from the playoffs and locked in the #1 pick in the draft thanks to their offseason trade with the Carolina Panthers. Beating Green Bay to keep them out of the playoffs on Sunday would be fun, but it doesn’t ultimately matter for the Bears’ future.

Accordingly, it’s time to shift attention to the monumental offseason that Chicago faces. The Bears are in a great position right now. They showed in 2023 that they are ready to compete, yet they also hold two 2024 1st round draft picks – including the aforementioned 1st overall pick – and have significant salary cap space (currently slotted for $62M, 8th most in the NFL, but both of those numbers will change significantly as teams make cuts and sign players to extensions).

Chicago has all the ingredients of a team poised to become a significant factor in the NFC over the next few seasons, provided they utilize their resources at hand well. That work will begin this offseason with two franchise-altering decisions: what to do at quarterback and head coach. I want to examine both of those decisions this week, starting with QB Justin Fields today and moving to head coach Matt Eberflus tomorrow.

Justin Fields Has Clearly Improved

Let’s start by noting that Fields has made clear improvements as a passer each season, as you can see in the table below.

A quick glance at these stats shows that Fields has developed into roughly a league average passer this year, though he still takes sacks at a higher than average rate. When you factor in his rushing ability, that has real value. Fields has shown that he is clearly a starting QB in the NFL.

QB Comparison

With that in mind, let’s compare Fields directly to his peers. While the table above looked at all passes thrown in the NFL this year, the table below shows how Fields compares only to the 31 QBs who have thrown the ball at least 230 times. His ranks compared to these peers are shown in parentheses, and any ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while any in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red. A few notes:

  • Because so many point to the improvements Fields has made throughout the season, I split his data into three buckets — full season, weeks 4+ (excluding his awful first 3 weeks), and weeks 11+ (looking only at his return from his injury). All ranks are still compared to season-long averages for everybody else, so no excluding bad games for other QBs.
  • This chart uses a wider range of statistics here, many of which are more detailed than what I used above. No single stat gives a complete picture, but here’s a brief explanation of a few you may be less familiar with and the information they provide us with.
    • Success rate is a measure of what % of dropbacks (including runs and sacks) keep the offense ahead of the chains. This is basically a measure of consistency.
    • EPA is expected points added, and this also includes all sacks and scrambles. This is a measure of how directly a QBs performance sets the offense up to score points.
    • Adjusted net yards/attempt factors in sacks, interceptions, and touchdowns to give a weighted value of how effective a passer is. This ignores rushing.

A few thoughts:

  • Fields does not fare terribly well here. Even in the most favorable viewing, which removes his 3 bad games at the start of the season without removing any bad games for anybody else, Fields is an average to above average passer who is inconsistent and takes too many sacks.
  • We also have no evidence that his performance is significantly improving over the course of the season. Even though Fields is widely regarded as playing pretty well since his return from injury in week 11, his statistics there are actually not all that different from his season-long values.
  • If you’re a believer that stats don’t capture how well Fields has performed, PFF grades are supposed to catch that sort of thing. They have Fields rated 19th among QBs on the year, and his grades would rank 15th since week 4 or 19th since week 11 compared to full season grades for everybody else. Those grades include all offense, so Fields’ rushing contributions are included, and roughly match the table above.
  • You can’t blame this on supporting cast anymore either.
    • Chicago’s offensive line isn’t great, but they are also no longer terrible. They have 4 capable or better starters in Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins, Nate Davis, and Darnell Wright. PFF has them 16th in their most recent OL rankings – exactly average – and they are 21st overall in pass blocking grade on the season.
    • Likewise, the pass catchers are adequate as well. Even though the supporting players around them are below par, DJ Moore and Cole Kmet are both clear top 10 players at their positions, and PFF has the overall group graded 19th in receiving. Fields also has the 5th lowest drop rate among qualified QBs at 3.6%, according to Pro Football Reference.
    • The rest of the passing offense isn’t a strength, but it’s not a weakness to the point that it is holding Fields back (which is a stark difference from his 1st two seasons in the league).
  • All in all, there’s simply no evidence to suggest that Fields is – or even is becoming – a high level starting QB. And if he’s not at that level by the end of season 3, he is almost certainly never going to be. The last QB to become a high-level player starting in year 4 after not being one through his first 3 seasons was Drew Brees, and that was 20 years ago.

Historical Draft Trends

Overall, the data tells us that Justin Fields is a capable starting NFL QB, but not a great one. Now it is up to general manager Ryan Poles to decide whether it makes more sense to keep Fields or try to upgrade at the position.

A big part of this decision will involve what options they have to replace Fields with. It is exceedingly rare for great veteran QBs to be available via trade or free agency, and this offseason does not appear to be any exception, so the main avenue Chicago would look to is the draft.

Like we mentioned above, the Bears hold the #1 pick, and this draft has two highly regarded QB prospects in Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. Those two are very likely going to be the top 2 picks of the draft, in some order. If the Bears decide not to take a QB, they will likely trade out for a haul, like they did with Carolina last offseason, and there are many teams near the top of the draft who desperately need a QB. 5 teams in the top 11 – Washington, New England, Tennessee, Atlanta, Las Vegas – clearly have no starter, while teams like Arizona and the New York Giants could consider moving on from highly paid, underperforming veterans.

The NFL draft is far from a sure thing, but a quick look at NFL history can give us an idea of what to expect when QBs go 1-2 in the draft. That has happened 9 previous times in the Super Bowl era, with the results shown below.

By my count, 6 of those 9 instances produced a QB who was decidedly better than an average starter like Justin Fields:

  • 2023 – CJ Stroud is already better than Fields as a rookie.
  • 2021 – Trevor Lawrence was in Fields’ draft class and has clearly been better.
  • 2012 – Andrew Luck made 4 Pro Bowls in 8 years before retiring early for medical reasons.
  • 1999 – Donovan McNabb made 6 Pro Bowls, finished 2nd in MVP voting once, and is in the Philadelphia ring of honor.
  • 1998 – Peyton Manning might be the best QB of all time.
  • 1993 – Drew Bledsoe made 4 Pro Bowls, was 7th in all time passing yards when he retired, and is in the New England ring of honor.

Two of the remaining three drafts produced at least one average starter:

  • 2016 – Jared Goff is probably better than average, at least based on statistics. I debated including him in the list above, but he has been very dependent on having ideal surroundings to produce in his career, and the Rams gave up draft capital to move on from him in his prime so that they could win a Super Bowl with a better QB.
  • 1971 – Both Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning started for years and made multiple Pro Bowls. Neither was ever great, but both were solid for a long time.

That leaves only 1 instance – 2016 with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota – where a draft with 2 QBs taken at the top did not produce at least one QB who was as good as or better than what Justin Fields is.

Decision Looming

On the surface, history might make the decision to move on from Fields look easy. There is a 2/3 chance that you can get a better QB than Fields, and very low odds you end up worse off. But there are 2 key factors that could complicate that:

  1. You have to pick the right QB. Most of these drafts saw one of the top 2 QBs be a pretty big bust, somebody who was clearly worse than Fields. History says one of those 2 QBs will likely be better than Fields, but that does not guarantee the Bears make the right choice with the 1st pick. The better QB went 2nd in 2 of the 6 instances where one of the QBs would have upgraded Fields.
  2. This requires you to think long-term. Rookie QBs are usually bad, so Justin Fields in year 4 of his career will almost certainly be better than a rookie in 2024, even if the rookie ends up better than Fields eventually.

If the Bears’ goal is simply to make the playoffs in 2024, then keeping Fields is the easy choice. They were nearly a playoff team this year with Fields, and figure to be even better next year if they run it back and upgrade the rest of the roster using their ample resources. Ryan Poles could safely keep Fields, trade the 1st pick for a massive return, and field a playoff-caliber roster for the next several years that could provide him with excellent job security while giving the Bears their best run of success in over a decade. That has to be very tempting to Poles.

But that approach also limits Chicago’s ultimate ceiling. The majority of Super Bowls are won by QBs who are decidedly better than average, so if Poles’ main goal is to win a Super Bowl with the Bears, then he needs to make the difficult decision and move on from Fields this offseason.

My goal is to see the Bears win a Super Bowl, so I think the Bears need to move on from Fields. But I also understand that is easy for me to say, since I don’t have my job security hanging on this decision. There are no guarantees that a QB drafted #1 overall would end up better than – or even as good as – Fields. He is a sure thing, which no draft pick ever is. That could be too difficult to move on from, even if moving on is objectively the right decision.

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