Chicago Bears QB confidential: The chatter inside NFL circles on Justin Fields’ future and Caleb Williams’ potential

The Chicago Bears have one game left — a fun finale Sunday in Green Bay — with a chance to punctuate their late-season surge while eliminating the rival Packers from playoff contention. Inside Halas Hall, the focus remains centered on that game with players and coaches embracing their opportunity to finish strong.

The NFL world, however, teems with curiosity about how the Bears will navigate a potentially landmark 2024 offseason with so many high-profile and high-stakes decisions ahead. With a rapidly improving defense, some legitimate firepower on offense and, yes, the No. 1 draft pick, some see this as the ultimate “Choose Your Own Adventure” for general manager Ryan Poles and President/CEO Kevin Warren.

“Absolutely fascinating,” one league GM said. “Whatever path they choose to go down, they have options. And really, there’s not a bad option. They’re in a really good spot.”

Will quarterback Justin Fields still have a locker stall at Halas Hall when organized team activities begin in May? Or will the Bears opt to reboot with a new quarterback they draft in April?

How will the Bears determine the future of coach Matt Eberflus? And what about the current state of the roster and opportunities to upgrade through free agency, the draft and, quite possibly, another headline-grabbing trade or two?

Over the past three weeks, the Tribune spoke with more than a dozen sources to get a feel for where the Bears may be leaning and to better understand everything they must consider at this pivot point in team history.

In a two-part summation of all we learned, we start with 15 things to contemplate about the quarterback conundrum.

On Friday we will look through a wider lens with analysis of Eberflus’ future and insight on the current roster’s building blocks.

1. The Bears already know a lot about Justin Fields that might make it difficult to reboot at quarterback.

Start with Fields’ playmaking magic as a scrambler, the most recent evidence his ridiculous third-and-8, 13-yard magic act in Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons.

“I really believe he’s the only guy who can do that in this league,” tight end Cole Kmet said. “That’s what is so captivating about him.”

That’s just one drop from the gushing fountain of praise Fields has received from teammates this season. That support is not to be taken for granted.

Also, the Bears can’t look past Fields’ arm talent, high-level athleticism or love for the game.

Perhaps most impressive, Fields has shown elite mental toughness over three seasons in Chicago with a rare ability to ride the NFL’s QB1 roller coaster with grace and equanimity.

“All that stuff counts,” one former AFC executive said. “It’s definitely part of their evaluation.”

Fields has handled his highest highs with perspective. He has reset quickly after his worst performances. He has withstood the big-city spotlight with maturity and been unfazed by the nonstop debates about his play and potential — both in Chicago and on a national level.

Fields’ explosive speed, strong arm and deep-ball ability can make for a mesmerizing fireworks show. For Poles and his staff, their final decision on Fields’ future will require deep analysis and contemplation.

Others in league circles are staring at Chicago with great curiosity.

“It’s rare,” the former AFC executive said, “for a team to have a quarterback who shows signs that he can play like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson yet still be considering moving on from him because you have the opportunity to. Most teams who have a quarterback with those kinds of flashes don’t have the No. 1 pick. So this is as rare as it gets for Chicago.”

2. One of the strongest arguments for staying the course with Fields centers around the Bears’ ability to auction the No. 1 pick.

After turning last year’s No. 1 pick into an absolute haul — wide receiver DJ Moore, right tackle Darnell Wright, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, this year’s top pick and a 2025 second-rounder — Poles might be tempted to sell again with an opportunity to significantly raise the starting bid.

“You’re going to get all those extra picks,” one current GM said. “Without question, you have to give that serious consideration. Someone is going to want that first pick bad.”

Such a decision, though, would have to start with full conviction that Fields is a no-doubt franchise quarterback worth building around beyond 2024.

“It has to start there,” the GM said. “Your starting point is comparing Justin to what’s coming out (in the draft). It’s a very direct question: Is anyone in this class that much better than him? That’s the discussion.

“Now, if you determine that one of these quarterbacks (in the draft) is a franchise quarterback coming in on a rookie contract, you’re probably going to pick that quarterback. But if there’s some doubt? And if you think — knowing Justin now as well as they do — that he is your franchise guy, then you grab all those picks and keep building.

“It may be a tough decision. But it’s a really good situation to be in.”

3. One of Fields’ most significant leaps in 2023 has been his production as an extended-play passer.

His touchdown pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis in Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals was a prime example, showcasing his heightened understanding of how to bait defenders with his scrambling ability and then crush them with a big-play pass.

There were additional examples Sunday as Fields threw for 268 yards against the Falcons. Eberflus continues to be pleased with that growth.

“You’re starting to see him work out of the pocket and look downfield and make some big strikes,” Eberflus said. “The last couple weeks are a great example of that. That’s how you gut a defense.”

From early in the spring through training camp and into the season, the Bears have encouraged Fields to find a healthy balance between maximizing his tuck-and-run chances and finding more scramble-and-throw opportunities.

“First and foremost, that makes him more dangerous,” quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. “We all know what he can do with his legs. Now he can also do it with his arm. So (if a defense is) worrying about him running, now he can pull up and make that throw into a one-on-one matchup where he gives his guy a chance.”

From Day 1, Fields has been receptive to those coaching points and intent on improving that aspect of his game.

“Anytime we talk to him about something, I try to show him evidence and (explain) the why,” Janocko said. “(Offensive coordinator) Luke (Getsy) is the same way. He showed Justin the explosives you can create. We all looked at explosives around the league. If you watch every big play around the league in a given week, they’re slants, they’re go routes and they’re broken plays. That’s pretty much everything.

“So how can we be more explosive? That’s one of the ways, and he definitely bought into that.”

4. The Bears also know firsthand about Fields’ limitations that could inhibit his career rise over the rest of the decade.

Many of those weaknesses are discussed openly within league circles. Fields is seen as overly hesitant on throws across the middle and suffering from what one league source labeled “delayed vision” — not getting his eyes to open targets with proper timing and rhythm and instead allowing defensive backs added time to react.

Fields has shown improvement with his overall pocket feel this season but only to a run-of-the-mill level.

One source who has studied Fields’ game extensively remains bothered by the quarterback’s “lack of feel” and inability to consistently manipulate defenses at the end of Season 3.

Even since Fields returned from his thumb injury in November, the source said he has seen too many moments when Fields isn’t throwing into “open-enough” windows, which in turn is impeding the progress of the Bears offense.

“You sit there and watch it,” the source said, “and you ask yourself, ‘Why in the world is he not making these throws?’ Is it, a, he’s still limited processing? Or is it, b, he’s scared to throw an interception?

“I’d rather see him take more chances and watch his interception total go up — and play the game like Josh Allen — than see this. He seems so gun-shy to throw the ball into any traffic.”

5. A former AFC executive said Fields’ flashes of playmaking brilliance are intoxicating.

“The highlights are hard to get out of your head,” he said. “And I have absolutely no attachment to the situation. I can’t imagine how that feels on the inside.”

The same source also expressed concern over Fields’ subpar passing production across 37 starts, with an average of 15.1 completions and 174.5 yards.

“The volume of completions and passing yards just isn’t matching up with the top offenses in the league,” he said. “You don’t ignore that.”

The San Francisco 49ers lead the NFL in yards per passing play (9.05), while the Baltimore Ravens are third (7.55) and the Buffalo Bills sixth (7.04). The Bears lag at 25th (5.99).

“You see what I’m saying?” the former exec said. “Justin isn’t Josh Allen. He’s not Lamar Jackson. Yes, he has similar traits and similarities with his size and playmaking ability. But the down-in, down-out production, the game-in, game-out performances are not that.”

One league source whose team actively scouted quarterbacks during the 2021 draft process indicated there were warnings that spring that Fields would have to be rewired for the NFL after playing 22 games at Ohio State with an otherworldly supporting cast.

Fields made his final start for the Buckeyes — in the national championship game in January 2021 — behind four offensive linemen who have been drafted plus a fifth, Matthew Jones, who is a two-time All-Big Ten selection with a chance to be picked this spring.

Fields’ running back was Trey Sermon, a 2021 third-round pick by the 49ers. His tight end, Luke Farrell, was drafted in Round 5 that year. Oh, and the starting wide receivers? Three top-12 picks in Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jameson Williams, with another future first-rounder, rising star Jaxon Smith-Njigba, as a reserve.

“You don’t have to throw into tight windows or play with elite anticipation when you’re with that crew,” the source said.

The interpretation: Fields’ rewiring process still is occurring. But he also exhibits flaws — holding the ball too long, not seeing things quick enough, feeling hesitant against zone coverage, seeming antsy in the pocket — that were known deficiencies when he entered the league.

6. One longtime personnel man rated five key attributes for NFL quarterbacks on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the most important.

He stamped off-script playmaking a 7, processing ability an 8.5 and pocket presence a 9.

“This league makes you make critical plays from the pocket,” the exec said. “And they’re going to force you to. Yes, you can do all sorts of other things. But there are some critical moments where (defenses) are going to say, ‘No, no, no, you are not leaving the pocket.’ And if you’re not a guy who can make enough plays from the pocket to keep them honest, you’re in trouble.”

The two 10s on his list? Thick skin — which he indicated should hold a 10-plus value for starting quarterbacks — and clutch production late in games.

“That’s where you win your championships,” he said. “You can get your team into the playoffs and not be a 10 there. We’ve seen plenty of quarterbacks do that.

“But without that? You’re never going to hoist the Lombardi (Trophy). You’re not going to go through the gauntlet of playoffs if you don’t have that.”

About that …

7. Fields’ spotty track record in the fourth quarter isn’t a secret.

In three seasons and 37 starts, he has 19 fourth-quarter turnovers. His fourth-quarter passer rating is 61.0, including a career-low 52.0 mark this season.

In the final eight minutes of games in which the Bears had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead, Fields has succeeded only three times in 23 possessions: one triumph in each season.

His fourth-quarter passer rating this season ranks 36th among the 37 quarterbacks with at least 50 fourth-quarter attempts, ahead of only the New England PatriotsBailey Zappe (48.3).

This, one former coordinator said, is a red flag. Bright red.

“It’s damning,” he said. “That tells you he’s just not an accurate passer, that he’s not processing at a high level. … There are just certain things that are in your DNA or they’re not. Sure, you can make improvements. A little bit. But those things are who you are.”

Another NFC offensive assistant said fourth-quarter playmaking is essentially a crystal ball into how a quarterback would fare in the playoffs.

“Because you’re talking about known passing situations,” he said. “So a quarterback’s track record in that area should tell you a lot. When you’re in known passing situations, can you drop back, consistently make the right decisions and win the football game throwing the ball?

“That’s the fourth quarter. This is the NFL. It’s set up to be close in the fourth. And you’re going to have to throw the ball well to win the games. … That’s what this league is. And it ain’t changing. You’re going to have to win games in two-minute (offense).”

8. So what if the Bears choose to pivot by trading Fields and drafting a quarterback in April?

The most obvious arrow points toward selecting USC’s Caleb Williams at No. 1. From a talent perspective, Williams has jaw-dropping abilities.

ESPN’s Jordan Reid is among many draft analysts who rate Williams as the top prospect in the 2024 class while seeing potential NFL stardom in his future. And “potential” is the operative word.

“He can make every single throw on the field that you’d want,” Reid said. “He’s a very good processor of information, a good read-and-react type of quarterback. Then you add on top of that the high-level improvisational skills he brings to the table, and he’s really everything you want at the position with what we’re seeing in today’s game.”

Particularly as it relates to Williams’ natural pocket feel and how that will translate to the NFL, Reid doesn’t see that as a work in progress.

“That’s another special trait he does have where it’s an innate feel of being able to play inside of the pocket,” Reid said. “He just has a feel and awareness of everything going on around him and he’s always in control.”

As one current GM said, the Bears could easily stick with Fields and feel comfortable he will be a solid single, possibly a double, as a starting quarterback. But the goal is to hit a home run.

“And they don’t even have to swing for the fences with this one,” the GM said. “They’ve got the (bleeping) No. 1 overall pick.”

9. One league source joked that the evaluation of Williams’ college tape can be completed in half a day.

That’s how easy it is to fall in love with Willams’ playmaking flair, pocket poise and arm talent. Another executive agreed.

“The tape is beautiful,” he said. “Better than I expected actually.”

That exec took a critical eye to Williams’ tape initially, skeptical that it would live up to all the outside hype. He was wrong. He loved it.

“He’s just calm,” he said. “He’s cool. It’s like watching a smooth basketball player. It’s fun to watch.”

No, Williams isn’t a flawless prospect. He’s on the shorter side and might measure right around 6 feet at the combine next month. His off-script playmaking brilliance also has created bad habits in which he occasionally relies on that strength as a crutch and, in turn, gets unnecessarily reckless.

“He has to better understand when he needs to keep the Superman cape in the closet,” Reid said. “Because he plays a lot of hero ball.”

Williams also has had fumbling problems throughout his college career and will need to polish his ball-security fundamentals.

One GM was upfront in asserting that Williams’ play can be erratic. “There is some tape where you go, ‘Man, what is going on?’ No rhythm. No structure. You’re not sure where he’s looking,” the GM said. “But with that, you also recognize immediately that he is a freak talent. He can do it all.”

10. A former league executive stressed it’s important to remember where Ryan Poles came from.

Thirteen seasons in Kansas City. Current home of Patrick Mahomes.

The Chiefs drafted Mahomes in 2017 when they already had a solid starter in Alex Smith, who in 2016 helped propel the team to 12 wins and a division title.

With Poles serving as the team’s director of college scouting during that draft cycle, the Chiefs made a collective decision that Mahomes was an all-in, must-get talent at the most important position.

The Chiefs traded up 17 slots, drafted Mahomes at No. 10 and never looked back. Over Mahomes’ first five seasons as a starter, he won 63 regular-season games and 11 more in the playoffs. He has gone to the conference championship game in every season he has started, advancing to the Super Bowl three times and bringing home two Lombardi trophies.

As pie-in-the-sky as that may seem as a target, that’s the world the Bears should be actively trying to unlock.

Even in this season of well-documented struggle and frustration in Kansas City, Mahomes has surpassed 4,000 passing yards and led the Chiefs to their eighth consecutive AFC West championship.

“And this,” the former exec said, “is in his down year, their panic year. That’s a different world, man. It really is. But that’s the destination.”

11. The consensus around the league is that the most important pre-draft homework to be done on Williams will focus on how he is wired.

As it relates to the Bears specifically, the DNA test will be crucial.

Said one GM: “How is he going to be inside the stress of Chicago? That’s a football town with grand expectations. How is he going to handle that? This isn’t like Brock Purdy, the last pick in the draft on a good (49ers) team with nothing to lose. This is like an entire city is going to be depending on him to be the guy.

“And if he winds up there, he’ll also be replacing a guy (in Fields) that the fan base seemingly really liked. Man, that’s a lot to take. It’s a lot to handle.”

Would those dynamics prove too much for Williams? Or is he built with the resilience and mental fortitude to thrive under that pressure? That will be a huge component of the vetting process.

The Bears’ deep dive into Williams’ journey likely will require them to meet with people at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.; with those who were with Williams at Oklahoma in 2021; and with others who have known him the last two years at USC.

“You dig in as far as you can,” the GM said. “What do his teammates think of him? How is he in the locker room? What is his personal character? What is his football character? How does this guy handle adversity? What is he like when he’s succeeding? Work ethic. Leadership. Mental capacity.

“The football part is easy in evaluating a guy’s strengths and weaknesses. Everything else you have to dig in on.”

Added another coach: “There are alphas who are legitimate alphas because of who they are as a person. And there are guys considered alphas simply because they were the best player on their college team. Teams have to feel that out. Are you an alpha? Or were you just the best player on your team and that’s why everyone was looking to you?”

12. To that end, Williams’ rocky 2023 season may be a blessing in disguise for NFL teams striving to learn what he’s made of.

The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner wasn’t even a finalist for that award in 2023. His team lost five games. His own struggles were magnified by an outside world looking to cast aspersions. When Williams’ Trojans lost to Washington and he subsequently cried in the stands with his mom, it triggered a weeklong national debate on whether he was soft or just passionate.

When Williams declined to speak to reporters after USC’s November loss to rival UCLA, critics piled on again. The roller-coaster ride was fast and, frequently, disorienting.

But NFL teams are always trying to understand and project how a prospect — particularly a highly touted quarterback — will handle the ups and downs. Williams’ 2023 season will remove some of the guesswork.

Said an NFC assistant coach: “Just talk to the right people. You’ll know pretty quickly how he handled all of it.”

The same coach stressed that gauging and predicting a prospect’s maturity is key.

“What’s hardest to know is how they will interact and how they adapt to the responsibility of leading other grown men,” the coach said. “With some of these guys, the biggest challenge you face is teaching them how to lose. In our league, you can lose seven games and still go win the Super Bowl. So every week you have to reload.

“In college they can sometimes get by with getting upset or feeling down. People frame it as, ‘He cares.’ In the league? Guys don’t feel that way. Some of these guys have kids who are 10 and 12 years old. They’re like, ‘Get out of your feelings, bro. Come on. We don’t have time for all of that.’ You have to get in the huddle and be in the locker room every day and lead grown men.”

13. What about North Carolina’s Drake Maye?

Maye is widely considered the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the draft class. He has prototypical size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), a live arm and quality football awareness. ESPN’s Reid is impressed with Maye’s deep-ball prowess and the flashes he shows when he trusts what he sees.

“There are about five or six moments every single game where you’re like, ‘Man, yeah, this dude looks like a top-three pick,’” Reid said. “So what’s your hope? Eventually, when he has better support around him and consistency with a play caller, you’re hoping those flashes turn into consistency.”

Reid also has LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy in his next tier of quarterbacks in this class. The latter two will face off on the national championship stage Monday in a game that could affect both players’ pre-draft trajectory.

14. No matter what the Bears decide to do, they must continue to strengthen the infrastructure around their quarterback.

No one has the exact formula for devising a developmental launching pad for a young quarterback, but there is a long list of best practices. A sturdy offensive line is an obvious plus. So is a stable of established pass catchers.

Other suggestions to catalyze a prospect’s growth are a strong quarterback room that includes a wise and respected veteran who can be an everyday resource and a devoted quarterbacks coach with the ability to teach, push and encourage.

“That quarterback room has to be sturdy,” one current GM said. “That’s where your guy goes to learn. It’s where he goes to lean. That’s where he creates his habits. It’s really important.”

Naturally, a strong connection between the quarterback and his play caller also is considered vital.

“That is the key piece,” the former exec said. “That has to be synced up. There better be great rapport.”

A former AFC coordinator suggested that egos have to be checked when a team drafts a quarterback, especially in the top 10.

“When you draft a quarterback that high, that’s not the GM’s pick. It’s not the coach’s pick. It’s an organizational decision,” he said. “From Minute 1, the whole organization has to understand that they work for that kid. So what’s best for that young man?

“You have to learn the kid first. But no matter who it is, there’s a certain way to treat them and a certain way to foster their growth.”

15. Last year’s users of the No. 1 pick — the Carolina Panthers — are seen as a case study of what not to do when drafting a quarterback.

Said one GM: “Their o-line sucks. They don’t have any receivers who can get open. That can’t happen. You’re not even giving your guy a chance. Then you throw in immediate instability in the coaching staff and it’s just a disaster.”

Another league source expressed disbelief that the Panthers, in their trade up to get Bryce Young, gave the Bears DJ Moore, a proven top-tier receiver who would have been a friendly go-to playmaker for a rookie quarterback. Moore’s exit came 4 1/2 months after the Panthers dealt running back Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco.

Fifteen starts into his career, Young already faces a steeper climb while listening to a chorus of criticism. The lesson for the Bears? Don’t do that.

“You better create stability,” the GM said. “And a lot of it. Within your coaching (staff). With the roster. Something that gives the kid a chance to have some early success and not just get the (crap) beat out of him every play, every game.

“All these guys are playing earlier than ever. You want them to have a chance to have a chance.”

The 2021 Bears also are seen in league circles as a cautionary tale after GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy were encouraged to find a new quarterback but then were put into a “win or else” season that ultimately cost them their jobs after Fields’ rookie year.

Justin Fields? My God!” the former AFC executive said. “That’s another example of being set up for failure. ‘Hey, kid, we’re getting rid of the guy who loved you and believes in you to bring in people who may not want you. Now you have to prove yourself to them.’

“Nothing like a young quarterback being worried about having to prove himself to a (new) staff. That’s the last thing a new quarterback should have to worry about.”

The lesson for the Bears? Again, don’t do that.

That same source said the outside fascination with the Bears’ quarterback plans is growing. The stakes are high for the team’s decision makers.

“This is their moment. With this decision,” the source said. “This is their chance to either go forward or move out of the league by choosing which quarterback they want.”