— former quarterback Jim McMahon on the Chicago Bears before the 2021 NFL Draft
Those are some harsh words from the lone Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Chicago Bears franchise history. Harsh but, in a way, understandable.
Bad quarterback play is as synonymous with Chicago as deep-dish pizza. In the PFF era (since 2006), Chicago ranks 26th among the NFL's 32 quarterback rooms in PFF passing grade. Jay Cutler and Josh McCown are the only two Bears signal-callers to earn a single-season passing grade above 75.0 in that span, and both hit that mark in 2013. Even during the team's 2006 Super Bowl run, Bears starter Rex Grossman ranked 32nd among quarterbacks in PFF grade for the season.
So, given how the organization has fared at the position since McMahon’s departure in the late ‘80s, very few would have argued with his decision to drag his former team over the coals ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft.
However, just a couple of weeks later, his pessimism about the quarterback position in the Windy City flipped to optimism after the franchise traded up for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in Round 1.
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Fast forward to now, and there is still as much excitement about the 2021 first-rounder as there was last April. Yes, it was a rookie season filled with ups and downs and the Bears finished the season 6-11. But Fields flashed his natural talent and a ceiling that would firmly put him among the league's elite. And between his potential, the new regime led by head coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles, and the opportunity to improve his supporting cast through free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, Chicago enters the offseason with plenty of hope.
Let’s review Fields’ 2021 rookie campaign and outline how the Bears can attack free agency and the draft to improve around him.
REVIEWING JUSTIN FIELDS’ ROOKIE SEASON
Fields finished his rookie campaign with a 64.2 PFF grade that ranked 24th among qualifying quarterbacks and second among rookies. And over Fields' last five starts, his PFF grade spiked to 76.9, a top-10 mark among qualifiers.
The former Buckeye appeared more and more comfortable as the season went on, growing as a passer despite the lackluster situation around him. And through it all, he put his dynamic running ability on full display.
JUSTIN FIELDS ????
— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) October 31, 2021
Fields, who clocked a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, produced the fourth-most runs of 10-plus yards (14) among quarterbacks in 2021. He turned several broken plays into positive outcomes thanks to his scrambling ability. Fields’ comfortability on those plays only improved as the season went on. Across his final five starts, he earned an NFL-leading 90.5 passing grade outside of the pocket. Fields has top-tier playmaking ability thanks to his athleticism and arm talent.
Fields also ranked near the top of the position in delivering big-time throws (i.e. PFF’s highest-graded passes) — a rare feat for a rookie. He finished with a 6.1% big-time throw rate, tying for the second-highest in the NFL with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Among rookie quarterbacks in the PFF era, it ranks seventh behind a list of quarterbacks that includes Wilson, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck. Out of last year’s rookie class, it was the highest by 1.7 percentage points. Fields finished with a deep passing grade that ranks top three among Bears quarterbacks in the PFF era and higher than any season of the Mitchell Trubisky era by nearly double-digit grading points.
Consistently making those big-time throws as a rookie is no small accomplishment, and it should make the new regime elated with Fields’ long-term prospects.
Justin Fields had more high-level throws on MNF than any rookie has had in a single game this year pic.twitter.com/9y6JvJFLw7
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) November 9, 2021
While many quarterbacks offset those big throws with poor decisions, Fields didn't often put the ball in harm’s way through the air. When throwing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, he produced a minimal 2.9% turnover-worthy play rate — the seventh-best in the NFL. Fields’ turnover-worthy play rate dropped to 1.1% when he was in rhythm, trailing only Kyler Murray for top mark in the NFL.
Justin Fields in rhythm last year (@PFF)
7.3% big-time throw rate – 4th
1.1% turnover-worthy play rate – 2nd pic.twitter.com/sHX0ZVXO3u
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) February 21, 2022
As NFC North rival Aaron Rodgers said in December, Fields is ultra-talented and has the traits to be a star. This data reflects that. New offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who came over from the Green Bay Packers, is going to fully take advantage of Fields’ skill set while also ensuring he doesn’t rely on his playmaking ability too much. Getsy should hammer home the importance of playing in rhythm, and the play design goes hand-and-hand with that. Rhythm was the key to Aaron Rodgers’ bounce-back over the past couple of years, something Getsy played a major role in.
Fields is an aggressive quarterback by nature. His 10.1-yard average depth of target and 3.08-second average time to throw — the second- and fourth-highest figures in the NFL for 2021, respectively — back that up. It’s also a reason why he ranked 28th in percentage of in-rhythm dropbacks (47%). He needs to work on taking what the defense gives him. Making plays out of rhythm is something Fields is good at, although no quarterback should ever lean on such plays because they tank the efficiency of an offense.