Is Justin Fields ready to take the next step?
Justin Fields is one of the NFL's most polarizing players. Some believe he is on the brink of a breakout season that will cement his status amongst the league's elite, while others think he is an overrated hype machine whose skill set is more aligned with the player lined up next to the quarterback. While it is fair to say that his top highlights have come via his legs through two seasons, he also has plenty of arm talent to go with it. Chicago's front office did a masterful job of improving the talent around him this offseason, and now it is time for him to go out there and make them look smart for doing so.
Fields' critics claim he opted to run too often over sitting in the pocket and finding an open receiver. However, those detractors fail to recognize that he was making plays out of necessity, often picking up chunk gains after being forced to scramble behind a crumbling offensive line. Fields may possess a skill set that few quarterbacks in league history can match, but it might come as a surprise to learn that he was not known for his running ability at Ohio State. In fact, he ran for more yards last season (1,143) than he had in his entire collegiate career (1,133). He sat back in the pocket and took advantage of an elite group of pass-catchers, slicing up opposing defenses at will.
Ohio State's receiving core, which consisted of four future first-round selections (potentially five when Marvin Harrison Jr. becomes draft-eligible next year), may have been better than the group of playmakers the Bears will be trotting out this season, but they have made strides in that department to bridge that gap. Chicago's offense was a one-man show far too often last year, as Fields often willed them to near-victories on the strength of his dual-threat ability. However, their passing game should be much improved after the team traded for DJ Moore in the offseason.
Moore will provide Fields with a player he can consistently count on to get open. Adding a top-flight receiver is the best elixir to help a dormant passing attack find new life, and the Bears look primed to be the latest team to benefit from such an addition. The 26-year-old will also take attention away from Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool, who both have the talent to thrive while operating in single coverage. When you factor in the addition of Robert Tonyan and Cole Kmet's continued development, the Bears now boast one of the league's most potent group of pass-catchers.
While some quarterbacks have played at a high level as soon as they entered the league in recent years, it is important to consider that they are the exception to the norm. Just like any position, it takes some time for quarterbacks to develop. Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen didn't reach elite status until their third season, and they were both aided by major additions to their receiving core in AJ Brown and Stefon Diggs. Even Patrick Mahomes said it took him a few years to learn how to read defenses. A variety of factors impact the rate at which signal-callers develop, including the talent around them and their offensive scheme, and it is naive to expect them to all follow the same trajectory.
As far as talent goes, few players have as much ability as Fields. His knack for making plays with his legs speaks for itself, but he also possesses a rocket arm and has shown the ability to fit passes into tight windows on all types of throws. He is far from a finished product as a passer, but there is no denying the development he made in that department in his sophomore campaign. Lamar Jackson is his closest comparison in the league today, so it is no wonder Fields has received MVP hype (he has currently received the second-most votes to win the award) this offseason.
Fields was already voted the 86th-best player in the league on the annual top-100 list. While many feel his place on the list is unwarranted, it shows that he has already earned the respect of his peers, as the players are the ones who decide the rankings.
Fields' jersey ranked seventh in jersey sales in June 2023. The six players ahead of him, Jalen Hurts, Aaron Rodgers, Micah Parsons, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow, are all vying for the title of the league's premier player at any position. That statistic might not indicate anything other than his marketability (especially in one of the league's biggest markets in Chicago), but it is pretty striking, considering he hasn't nearly reached his potential. Once his on-field play catches up to his hype, there is no telling how much further he will rise.
The Bears are the league's only franchise without a 4000-yard passer, and Fields will have his sights set on that mark. If the 24-year-old achieves that honor, he could become the biggest superstar the city has seen since Derrick Rose captivated audiences early in his Bulls career. However, such a jump is not necessary for Fields to be considered among the game's elite signal-callers, as his rushing ability is another factor that sets him apart from his peers.
Having a league-wide popular quarterback is nice, but that is nothing compared to having an elite one. He has already achieved the former honor, now it is time to show that he can back up the hype on the field.