Everything changed for the Chicago Bears when they drafted Justin Fields. Landing a franchise-caliber quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft seemed impossible, but a brilliant trade up to the No. 11 pick gave the Bears a future worth getting excited about.
Fields was the quarterback hand-picked by head coach Matt Nagy. He’s a player with the talent, football IQ and athleticism who could truly open up a scheme that Mitchell Trubisky put a ceiling on. But as the Bears prepare for summer practices and training camp, their commitment to Andy Dalton is standing in their way.
No one blames general manager Ryan Pace for signing Dalton. After falling short on a Russell Wilson trade and with the ongoing Deshaun Watson legal situation, adding a stop-gap quarterback made sense. But following the Patrick Mahomes blueprint is the wrong move, especially for an organization with so much at stake.
Examining the recent history of starting rookie quarterbacks
When an NFL team devotes a top pick to a quarterback, especially after trading up, it is a commitment that usually leads to that player starting immediately.
There are some exceptions, like this past season when Ryan Fitzpatrick started over Tua Tagovailoa until after the Week 7 bye. But Tagovailoa was less than a year removed from a significant hip injury, didn’t have the benefit of rookie minicamp and never had the opportunity to play in the preseason. Joe Burrow started immediately for the Cincinnati Bengals and Justin Herbert, the Rookie of the Year, got his shot in Week 2.
- Justin Herbert stats (15 games): 4,336 passing yards, 31 passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 98.3 passer rating
- Joe Burrow stats (10 games): 2,688 passing yards, 13 passing touchdowns, five interceptions and 89.8 passer rating
- Tua Tagovailoa stats (nine starts): 1,805 passing yards, 11 passing touchdowns, five interceptions, 869 passer rating and 6-3 record
The Arizona Cardinals made Kyler Murray their starter immediately and while there were growing pains, the experience made him a better quarterback. Daniel Jones took over as the New York Giants quarterback in Week 3, showing flashes.
Naturally, Nagy is focused on a comparison he is very familiar with. After trading up for Mahomes, the Chiefs sat him until they could rest their starters in Week 17 of the 2017 season. But the circumstances are very different and the Bears’ decision shouldn’t treat their situation the same way.
Alex Smith was coming off a Pro Bowl campaign, posting a 91.2 passer rating and going 11-4 as the Chiefs’ quarterback. There was also zero reason to bench him in 2017, thanks to a career-best 104.7 passer rating, 26-5 TD-INT ratio and an 8.6 ay/a.
This decision must come down to talent and one quarterback is superior to the other.
Why Justin Fields is better than Andy Dalton
There’s a reason Chicago traded its future first-round pick, which many believe will be a top-10 selection, for the opportunity to land Fields. Not only does this franchise believe he is a franchise-caliber quarterback, but it also doesn’t seem to be that convinced internally that Andy Dalton can be an effective starter. It’s hard not to blame them.
Dalton stepped up for the Dallas Cowboys after the Dak Prescott injury. On the surface, his 14-8 TD-INT ratio, 64.9% completion rate and 87.3 passer rating can be viewed in a positive light. But he was also surrounded by a great receiving corps and the underlying numbers are concerning.
- Dalton ranked 34th among quarterbacks in adjust accuracy rate (32.4%) and 35th in passer rating (61.2) on deep throws, per PFF.
- Just 10.2% of his throws were 20-plus yards downfield, behind the likes of Teddy Bridgewater (11.1%) and Mitchell Trubisky (11.1%).
- Averaged 6.1 ypa on play-action throws, per Pro Football Reference.
If Nagy’s goal is to run a simplified, risk-averse offense, then Dalton is the way to go. He can make the quick reads, is great on short and intermediate throws and he protects the football (2.6% career interception rate). But that puts a ceiling on this offense. That’s not something Chicago’s regime can afford, especially with its defense poised to take a step back.
But there’s also another element at play here. Dalton hasn’t been a particularly accurate quarterback as of late. While he completed 64.9% of his throws last season, other stats paint a different picture.
- Dalton’s 71.1% true completion rate ranked 29th among quarterbacks, per Player Profiler.
- From 2017-’20, Dalton has just a 61.1% completion rate and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt
The Bears need to start the quarterback who gives them the best chance to win. This team scouted Fields heavily and both the stats and numbers provide a glimpse of what he can offer this franchise, especially in comparison to Dalton.
- Fields posted an outstanding 80.8% adjusted completion rate, per Pro Football Focus
- 34.52% of Fields’ throws came on play-action or RPOs, per NBC Sports’ Derrik Klassen
- 66.44% adjusted accuracy rate when pressured, per NBC Sports’ Derrik Klassen.
As for the narrative that he can’t progress through his reads, it’s false. PFF credited Fields with a 90.6 passing grade on throws after his first read. He loves throwing to his preferred weapons, but this 22-year-old quarterback has no problem spreading the football around and taking what is in front of him.
Fields will make mistakes, but his physical skills are vastly superior to Dalton. Nagy can’t build an offense around a 33-year-old quarterback with diminished arm strength, limited athleticism and inconsistent ball placement. But he can do that for Fields.
How Justin Fields can help Bears compete, save Matt Nagy
Thanks to Aaron Rodgers pushing for a trade, the NFC North is for the taking. The Green Bay Packers will take a monumental step back if Rodgers is traded. Quite frankly, there’s an argument for Fields as the best quarterback in the division if the reigning NFL MVP is gone.
The Bears have been crowned NFC North champions just once since the 2010 season and came in second just twice during that span. If Nagy and Pace want to keep their jobs, beating the Packers and becoming the proverbial “Kings of the North” is the way to do it.
We’ve never seen what Nagy is capable of unleashing in the NFL. Trubisky was forced upon him and he tried to make the best of a bad situation. When NFL defenses made adjustments after the 2018 season, Trubisky progressively got worse and it ultimately reached a breaking point. Things can be different with Fields.
There’s a recent Fields has drawn NFL comparisons to a more athletic Dak Prescott. At Ohio State’s Pro Day, he put on a show with his arm strength, touch, ability to throw off-platform and speed.
- Justin Fields 40 time: 4.44
The combination of size (6-foot-3, 27 lbs.) and athleticism will make Fields one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. Chicago can incorporate RPOs, boot concepts and play-action far more than it ever did before with Fields.
He is also the perfect quarterback for Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney. Robinson is one of the best route runners in the NFL, a savant when it comes to creating separation. Despite all of his talent, he ranked 52nd in yards per target (8.3) and 82nd in Player Profiler’s target accuracy (6.9) because of poor quarterback play. That won’t be an issue with Fields under center.
Mooney will be the deep threat who beats single coverage down the sideline and Robinson can line up in the slot or make plays on the outside. Whichever target he prefers, Fields can make on-target throws and deliver the cannon this passing attack missed.
Yes, he is going to make mistakes. But teams must be willing to ride through the growing pains, because players of Fields’ caliber provide far more highs than lows. Not only that, but starting Fields and letting him steadily work through things would give Nagy something to point to as a boost for his job security.
The Bears need to have a legitimate quarterback battle in training camp. If Justin Fields is given a legitimate shot at the starting job, he will beat Dalton, save Nagy’s job and the Bears might have a shot to win the Rodgers-less NFC North.