CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears face an interesting dilemma at quarterback this offseason. You may have heard.
With the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, general manager Ryan Poles is in an ideal position to reboot. The Bears could choose first from what is widely regarded as an impressive quarterback class, with USC’s Caleb Williams currently the consensus top prospect.
But Poles also could trade the pick for an eye-opening return, then continue building around incumbent starter Justin Fields. Staying the course would carry some complexity with Fields’ contract situation. By May 2, the Bears must decide whether to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie deal, which would fully guarantee his 2025 salary — estimated to be in the ballpark of $22 million by overthecap.com.
From there, Bears higher-ups also would have to discuss how much more they’d want to invest in Fields’ future through a possible extension.
In evaluating Fields’ worth and long-term potential, the Bears first have to cement their evaluation of his 2023 season, an up-and-down ride that included several flashes of brilliance, frustrating stretches of inconsistency and a monthlong absence due to a thumb injury.
So how much did Fields grow? Where were his most notable improvements? And what problem areas still exist?
Before the season, the Tribune established modest and realistic statistical goals for Fields in Season 3, a checklist that would help, at season’s end, measure the progress he made. The goals weren’t about setting the bar at an MVP level but about establishing checkpoints Fields would have to reach across seven key categories to convince Bears decision makers he’s ascending toward a championship level.
Here’s a look at the goals we set, how Fields performed and how it checks out in our grading system.
— E: Exceeded expectations
— ME: Met expectations
— NI: Needs improvement
— F: Failed to meet expectations
— Goals: 3,200 yards, seven games with at least 225 yards and three with 300-plus
— 2023 totals: 2,562 yards, three games with at least 225 yards and one with 300-plus
— Grade: F
— Comment: After vowing in the summer to become the first Bears quarterback to reach 4,000 passing yards in a season, Fields didn’t surpass 2,000 until Christmas Eve. He averaged 197 passing yards per start, bringing his career average to 174.
Fields’ subpar passing production over three seasons has given many around the league pause that he ever will become a top-tier NFL quarterback. And for those looking to draw comparisons to Baltimore Ravens star Lamar Jackson? Jackson has averaged 32 more passing yards per start during his career.
Fields threw for 231 yards in the first half of a Week 4 game against the Denver Broncos on his way to a career-high 335 in a loss. The next week he torched the Washington Commanders for 282 passing yards, and he threw four touchdown passes in both games. That was the peak of his season, and the Broncos game remains the only 300-yard effort in his career.
Fields averaged only 194 passing yards over his final seven starts. He has been held below 200 in 25 of his 40 career starts. And he threw multiple touchdown passes in only two of 13 starts this season.
— Goals: 2.2% interception rate, 10 or fewer interceptions and eight or fewer fumbles
— 2023 totals: 2.4% interception rate, nine interceptions and 10 fumbles
— Grade: NI
— Comment: Fields had a career-best season in interception rate, and after returning from a dislocated right thumb in Week 11, he threw only one non-Hail Mary interception in 206 attempts. Bears coaches emphasized the importance of ball security, and Fields responded with undeniable improvement. His interception rate ranked 23rd in the NFL; Houston Texans rookie C.J. Stroud led the league at 1.0%.
Fields’ extended absence must be taken into account with his interception and fumble totals, as the goals were set with the hope he would start 15 or more games. Still, he has gotten better overall at protecting the football and showing awareness. His 19 career fourth-quarter turnovers remain problematic. Nine of those came this season with three returned for touchdowns.
— Goal: 15 starts
— 2023 total: 13 starts
— Grade: NI
— Comment: Durability must be factored into the Bears’ big-picture evaluation as Fields has missed 11 starts in his career because of five injuries (ribs, ankle, shoulder, hip, thumb) plus an illness. Since entering the league, Fields has only 10 victories as a starter, meaning he has been likelier over three seasons to miss a game than win one.
Fields at least got on the right side of that equation this season with five wins and four missed starts. Still, his availability remains a concern.
— Goals: Fewer than 40 sacks and a sack rate of 8% or lower
— 2023 totals: 44 sacks and a 10.6% sack rate
— Grade: F
— Comment: Fields made significant improvement in this area and was down to an 8.7% sack rate over his final seven starts. Still, his season-long rate ranked 31st in the league, ahead of only the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson (11.1%) and the Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill (12.2%).
In the four games Fields missed, undrafted rookie Tyson Bagent had a 3.4% sack rate, a notable comparison considering he was playing in the same offense with the same supporting cast. Over the last three seasons, Fields’ 12.4% sack rate is markedly inferior to the six other Bears quarterbacks (6.0%) who have played during that time.
— Goals: 45 explosive completions (20-plus yards) and seven TD passes from outside the red zone
— 2023 totals: 45 explosive completions and eight TD passes from outside the red zone
— Grade: ME
— Comment: Fields’ longest pass this season was a brilliant 58-yard strike to DJ Moore to convert a third down on the opening drive of the Bears’ 40-20 win over the Commanders in October. His longest touchdown pass was a 56-yarder to Moore later in that game.
Of Fields’ 45 completions of 20 yards or longer, 24 went to Moore, including five touchdowns. That underscores the value of a big-time, go-to playmaker and lends credence to the argument that Fields’ production would spike with more weapons added around him.
— Goals: Two game-winning drives, an 82.0 fourth-quarter passer rating and a team average of 5.8 fourth-quarter points
— 2023 totals: One game-winning drive, a 53.4 fourth-quarter passer rating and a team average of 6.1 fourth-quarter points
— Grades: NI (drives), F (passer rating), ME (points)
— Comment: Fields overcame two fourth-quarter fumbles in the Bears’ Week 12 game at Minnesota to lead a game-winning field-goal drive in the final 2:29 of a 12-10 victory. His 36-yard dart to Moore set up Cairo Santos’ winning kick, while a 16-yard completion to Moore on the first play of that drive might have been more impressive.
Still, on the eight drives Fields began in the final eight minutes of a game with a chance to tie or go ahead, the Bears scored only once. He is now 3 for 23 in such situations during his career. Gut-wrenching losses to the Buccaneers, Broncos, Lions and Browns included notable missed late opportunities by the offense.
The goal we set for passer rating would have ranked 19th in the NFL among the 40 quarterbacks with at least 50 fourth-quarter attempts. Instead, Fields ranked 39th, ahead of only the New England Patriots’ Bailey Zappe (36.4). His six fourth-quarter interceptions were surpassed by only the Commanders’ Sam Howell, who had seven in 76 more attempts. Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love also threw six fourth-quarter interceptions but in 81 more attempts.
On a more positive note, in the 12 games Fields finished, the Bears scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in six of them. They had a season-best 13-point fourth quarter to seal the Week 5 win over the Commanders.
Direction, juice, momentum
— Goals: 625 rushing yards and seven victories
— 2023 totals: 657 rushing yards and five victories
— Grades: ME (rushing), NI (victories)
— Comment: Fields finished the season right in the ballpark of where we pegged him to be as a rusher. No one expected a repeat of his explosive 1,143-yard rushing total in 2022. Part of that was due to how defenses adjusted to account for his running ability. But a bigger part was attributable to Fields’ improved patience as an extended-play passer, resisting the urge to scramble at the first sign of duress.
Bears coaches highlighted Fields’ scramble-and-throw production as an encouraging sign for his development. Of course, explosive runs are still a big part of what makes him special and have to remain in his repertoire.
The Bears were able to climb from the NFL cellar into the middle tier in 2023, with Fields posting a 5-8 record as a starter, including a stretch of four wins in five games from late November through the end of December.
It was a step in the right direction and offered belief to those convinced the Bears will continue winning in 2024 and beyond if they remain committed to Fields and invest to bring out his best.