LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Justin Fields is just a few days away from his NFL preseason debut, and he’ll have a free scouting opportunity before that.
The Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears completed the first of two joint practices at Halas Hall in advance of their preseason game on Saturday at Soldier Field. An interesting quarterback parallel highlights this week’s sessions.
You seldom can compare one team’s quarterback situation to another because they’re always different. But Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa is now in the position that Bears QB Justin Fields is seeking: that of unquestioned-starter status. The Ohio State rookie is in a somewhat similar place now to where Tagovailoa was a year ago, having shown promise but still needing work before being anointed the savior.
When Fields will start remains a mystery. The way Bears head coach Matt Nagy tells it, that decision isn’t close to having been made yet. That means Fields could use a big week in these practices and in the preseason opener.
The NFL shaved off one exhibition game this year, dropping from four to three, with the onset of the 17-game regular season. This is the Bears’ only joint practice this year, too, giving it as much of a big-stage feel as an exhibition setting could offer.
“We for sure put a lot of stock into it,” Nagy said prior to practice. “It’s almost like an extension of the preseason game a little bit.
“The speed of the game picks up a little bit. But in the end, the preseason games really help us evaluate. You can already feel it a little bit in the building with the players. There’s a little pep and juice in them walking out there.”
There’s no player with more to gain now than Fields. And across the field is a good reminder that patience is a virtue for the rookie quarterback.
Justin Fields can draw on Tua Tagovailoa's rookie experience
Tagovailoa and Fields shared a brief embrace Wednesday after a lightning delay sent the teams off the field for more than an hour. Both came back to finish their respective afternoons with some good results and some shaky plays.
Fields can get some quality looks against his first unfamiliar NFL opponent. And he can look at how the Dolphins handled their 2020 first-round pick, Tagovailoa, and gain perspective on how his gradual ascension to the starting role came with some speed bumps.
In fact, Tua’s path was arguably harder than what Fields faces now. Tagovailoa was less than a year removed from major hip surgery and still wasn’t healthy when Dolphins training camp began last summer. COVID-19 wiped out virtually the entire offseason program, save for virtual meetings.
But there also are similarities to the two situations. Both quarterbacks put up video-game passing numbers in college and both led their blue-blood programs to the college playoffs multiple times. Tagovailoa “fell” to the fifth overall draft pick, which isn’t that far until you remember how loud the drumbeat had been for him to be the first overall selection prior to his injury.
Fields might not have been able to surpass Trevor Lawrence in this year’s draft, but the fact that he was the fourth QB selected in 2021, falling out of the top 10 picks, would have held up as a surprise as recently as, say, January.
Tagovailoa and Fields also entered the NFL with provisional veteran starters — Ryan Fitzpatrick last year in Miami, Andy Dalton this year in Chicago — both of whom coincidentally were in the final years of their respective deals.
Nagy didn’t seem to see the parallels lining up, instead mentioning the situation former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson faced toward the end of his career as perhaps a more apt comparison. Pederson, who coached with Nagy in Philadelphia and Kansas City, visited Bears camp and was talking with Nagy this week about how Andy Reid handled the switch in 1999 from Pederson to Donovan McNabb, drafted second overall that year.
Expect to see Fields sooner rather than later
It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see how this will end. Like with Miami last year, Fields is getting his shot in Chicago at some point this season.
The question is when. Fitzpatrick was playing well when he got benched last year for Tagovailoa, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see something similar play out in Chicago. And even with Tagovailoa's uneven rookie performance, he's the no-doubt starter in Miami, and the Dolphins committed major resources toward beefing up his surrounding cast.
Nagy, who has stuck with his assertion that Dalton will be the Week 1 starter, said Tuesday that the plan is for Dalton to start Saturday against the Dolphins but play sparingly — somewhere on the order of eight to 10 plays, he said.
Fields will get a longer look for two reasons. One is that Dalton has “exceeded” Nagy’s expectations in terms of mastery of the offense to this point. The second reason is that the Bears want to give Fields as many game reps as possible — likely behind the first-team offensive line for at least part of his time Saturday.
“We need to evaluate Justin, so we’re going to want to see him do some stuff, too,” Nagy said.
The early word on Fields is that he has been impressive this offseason through the first two weeks of training camp. Flash plays have been a regular occurrence, and his arm strength, off-script improvisational skills and athleticism on the move all have stood out.
Dalton has been the steadier of the two to date, and that was the case in Wednesday’s session. Both Bears QBs threw interceptions (while QB3 Nick Foles barely got any work outside of individual drills). Dalton had more success overall on this day, even while throwing a pick-six to Dolphins rookie Jevon Holland.
Fields had multiple passes tipped at the line. He authored some nice completions, but more than a handful came on plays that might have been regular-season sacks if quarterback contact was allowed.
Of course, Fields also had the pass of the day, an arcing bomb to Jon’vea Johnson on a post pattern that earned some oohs and ahhs from Bears players. Fields’ deep accuracy has been a talking point in camp and through the offseason. But a tough Dolphins defense gave him plenty of learning opportunities in a rather so-so day overall.
Still, there's no reason to think Fields can't push Dalton by stacking some good performances this week, even if they'll need to be better than what he showed Wednesday.
Another resource might be Tagovailoa himself. We don’t know if the two players who’ve never faced each other as starters have much of a relationship. But Nagy expects Fields to interact plenty with his counterpart over the next few days, knowing that Tagovailoa can shed some wisdom on how he handled last year’s rigors in Miami and how he’s preparing as The Man now.
“I think when these guys are on the field together, they’ll go over and ask questions and pick each other’s brains,” Nagy said. “I think that’s beneficial.”
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