Improving offensive line in draft is just part of how Chicago Bears can help Justin Fields
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Courtney CroninESPN Staff Writer CloseCovered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.
“Do I think I was always put in the best position to succeed? Um, you know, I don't know,” Fields said during Chicago’s recent voluntary minicamp. “But at the end of the day, that doesn't matter. You just have to handle what you've got and try to make the best out of it.”
Fields’ rookie year was loaded with ups and downs. He battled injuries, had the NFL’s highest rate of interceptions and sacks, the third-most fumbles among starting quarterbacks (12) and recorded the lowest QBR (26.4) over the last three seasons. That was set against the backdrop of a 6-11 season that resulted in an overhaul of the team’s leadership, including the firing of coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace.
But it wasn’t all terrible for Fields. He showed improvement in his last five starts and grew as a passer. He improved his deep ball, increasing his completion percentage from 37% to 50% on throws of 20-plus yards. He made better use of his skill set outside the pocket (his QBR in this area rose from 9.6 to 54.1) and he displayed the athleticism (nine runs of 10-plus yards) that led the Bears to trade up to draft him 11th overall last April.
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With the NFL draft (ESPN, ABC and ESPN App) set to start Thursday, Chicago is faced with the challenge of filling many needs – offensive line, wide receiver, and cornerback among the most pressing – while also doing everything it can to help Fields take the “big jump” coach Matt Eberflus said he expects in Year 2. The best course of action for new general manager Ryan Poles should be to make sure Fields has adequate protection.
Poles, a former offensive lineman, saw issues with the personnel up front, from body compositions to scheme fits, and began overhauling the offensive line by letting James Daniels hit free agency and signing Lucas Patrick to play center. The Bears started to shuffle the O-line in minicamp by moving Larry Borom to left tackle and Teven Jenkins to right tackle, the positions both played in college, opposite of where they filled in during their rookie seasons in 2021.
“They 100% need to invest in their offensive line, and Seattle needs to be the model of what not to do,” ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “I think Ryan Poles needs to be very focused on not allowing the reality of how special of an athlete Justin is to make him believe he can get away with having an average offensive line.
“I think that’s what happened in Seattle. Russell [Wilson] was so good and so athletic early on that [the Seahawks] felt they could build on the skill position guys. That’s the tempting part in Chicago right now -- we’ve got to get guys that can get open, we’ve got to get skill guys. A hundred percent, but do not do that before you address [Fields’] ability to stand upright and play quarterback from the pocket. Because if you do that, he’ll run for his life, and you’ll damage his career.”
Fields was sacked 36 times in 11 games (on 10.3% of his dropbacks), including taking nine in his first start against Cleveland. Oddly enough, Chicago’s pass block win rate last season was sufficient at 66.1%, the sixth-best mark in the league as the O-line sustained its blocks for at least 2.5 seconds.
Of course, not all of the struggles Fields encountered in 2021 can be pinned on the offensive line. Fields averaged 2.91 seconds before the pass last season – the sixth-highest mark – while the NFL average was 2.77 seconds.
When he held the ball past the NFL average, he was pressured on 43.3% of pass plays – sixth-highest in NFL. Six of his 10 interceptions were thrown while he was pressured. But his problems weren’t all a result of pressure. Fields’ 0.7 touchdown-interception ratio when not pressured was second worst in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
“When you have a quarterback that’s holding the ball, he’s not anticipating that his wide receiver is going to get open,” former NFL offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. “If he holds the ball for even a half-second more -- or a full second more -- because he’s waiting until the receiver is actually open instead of throwing him open, that’s a sack in the NFL. And a sack fumble if you don’t have great ball security.”
Fields admitted there were instances when he was at fault for taking a sack. It led him to work with new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy to clean up his footwork and change the way he drops back to pass.
The 23-year-old is also taking steps to improve his ability to get rid of the ball faster by honing his timing with the players he’ll be throwing to this season. He recently conducted impromptu throwing sessions in Atlanta with Bears receiver Darnell Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet to help build continuity with his pass catchers.
“To be on that same page and get that understanding, that’s when quarterbacks can play fast, and you can sit there and go -- ‘alright, it’s quarters and that ‘backer is going to pay attention to this play fake and you know once you cross that safety’s face, that ball is going to be on your face mask,'" Orlovsky said. "That allows you to play faster, so you’re not holding onto the ball as much.”
Fields threw four touchdowns to 10 interceptions -- a 0.4 TD-Int ratio -- to receivers, which was tied for second-worst by a qualified quarterback in the last five seasons.
Working to create that seamless connection takes months, often longer to perfect. And it’s not all on the quarterback, either. Mooney, who is coming off a 1,055-yard season and has become the Bears’ No. 1 receiver, takes it upon himself to be in position to improve that connection.
“If he feels like, on this route, just win, I’ll get you open, or I’ll throw it to a spot, just make sure you win -- I’ll just do that,” Mooney said. “I watched some of his tape from Ohio State of some of his receivers ... and would just watch how they ran it, and how he was comfortable throwing the ball. It would be like a perfect pass, so I [will] just try to be in the best position, same position.”
Chicago, which traded away its first-round pick to move up to draft Fields, makes its first picks at No. 39 and 48 in the second round and No. 71 in the third. ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes the Bears can walk away with “an offensive lineman or two” in the second to fourth rounds, with prospects like Dylan Parham, Luke Goedeke, Sean Ryan or Darian Kinnard being intriguing late Day 2, early Day 3 options.
In Todd McShay’s latest three-round mock draft, the Bears select Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green (a borderline first-round pick) at No. 39, before taking a cornerback and defensive end. While finding Fields more pass-catchers is a necessity, that might come at the cost of shoring up his protection first.
But even if his pass protection doesn’t take a major jump, Fields still has to in spite of what’s around him.
“The big thing for Justin is how much can he individually get better without focusing on the burden of winning games,” Orlovsky said. “Because that’s when you get yourself into trouble. That’s when you really start to get ruined. It’s not easy. The desire to win is so great that you can stunt your own development and you can go backwards.
“What you want to see is him develop his leadership skills and start to get an understanding for their offense by finding a couple pieces on the offensive line to help him play his best.”