Although they entered the first round of Thursday night’s NFL Draft with the 20th overall pick, the Chicago Bears traded four picks – including their first- and fourth-round picks this year and first- and fifth-round picks next year – to move up and select former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields at No. 11 overall.
“We feel really fortunate to be able to get Justin in the area of the draft we were able to select him,” general manager Ryan Pace said during his post-draft media availability on Thursday night. “The excitement throughout our whole building, you can feel it as I walked down here tonight. What he’s going to do for the future of our organization (is exciting).”
Few anticipated Fields would fall to the Bears or that the franchise would draft a quarterback since they already have Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles on the roster and signed veteran Andy Dalton, who they recently named their starter, to a one-year deal in March. But the move was made with the future in mind.
Head coach Matt Nagy, who was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City from 2016-17, has experience in grooming a highly touted rookie to replace an aging veteran, as he drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017 despite having Alex Smith on the roster. Mahomes learned under Smith for one year before being named the starter, and Pace believes Nagy will follow that same blueprint with Fields.
“Getting him is one thing, but for us to surround him and develop him is the other thing,” Pace said. “You can draft the players, but you have to develop them the right way. That’s what I love about the environment that we have.
“Matt, he has the blueprint. They did and awesome job with Patrick coming into Kansas City with Alex there. Matt and I have talked about that year and how it was handled. The process and how we do that is important. We’ve got a good plan in place to surround him with the right resources and to develop him the right way.”
The Bears attended both of Fields’ pro days leading up to the draft, with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and assist director of player personnel Champ Kelly attending the first pro day while Pace, Nagy and director of player personnel Josh Lucas attended the second.
“What stood out with him in all of our interviews, and we’ve done a lot of them, is just his focus and how serious he is and the determination he has,” Pace said. “He’s really locked in and his desire to be great, you can feel that when you speak to him.”
“I also think just seeing the ball come off his hand, the velocity and how natural it is, and seeing him up close in person, how he’s built – the muscular stature and how dense he is – that explains the durability that he has and the toughness that he has. He has all those tools, he has all those arm strengths. Now it’s on us as a staff to refine those and develop those. I know he’s going be open to that, and that’s what’s exciting about it.”
While many of Fields’ critics pointed to his struggles in the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game win over Northwestern and the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship loss to Alabama, Pace mentioned Fields’ performance in the 2019 victory at Michigan as for when he knew Fields had what it takes to be a successful NFL quarterback.
In that game, Fields aggravated a knee injury suffered the week prior, briefly went to the medical tent before returning to the game and throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Garrett Wilson on his first play back.
“It’s the combination of factors that he has,” Pace said. “It’s the arm talent, it’s the accuracy, it’s the athleticism. When you see a guy with that kind of arm talent with that kind of quarterback makeup that he has, with that kind of work ethic, that’s played in really big games and really big moments and performed in big moments and is extremely tough.
“I was at the Michigan game a couple years ago when he came back in from a knee (injury) and we know about the ribs and the hip (injury suffered in the 2021 Sugar Bowl against Clemson),” Pace said. “This guy’s toughness on a scale of 1 to 10 is an 11, and you just love that about him. Oh, and then by the way, he runs a 4.4(-second) 40(-yard dash). You throw that all in together and it just feels good.”
Pace was also asked about the pre-draft reports that revealed Fields has been managing epilepsy since childhood, to which he responded that it wasn’t a concern.
“He’s handled a lot of those things throughout his life, and we have a lot of ties into the Ohio State football program, and our doctors and trainers do a great job,” Pace said. “We were very comfortable with that and how he handles that. We’ve dealt with something similar in the past with different players over the years, and we’re completely fine with it.”
Now that they have their franchise quarterback in the fold, the Bears’ focus is now on developing Fields properly and surrounding him with other talented players that will help him succeed.
“I think we just have to let it play out,” Pace said. “One of the best feelings in the world would be we’re rolling, we’re playing really good football and we’re looking over there and seeing this guy and we all know, ‘Hey, we got a guy.’ But even with all of the experiences that they have at the college level, growing and watching tape, reading defenses, working the huddle, it’s just so new for these guys. It’ll be a daily process, a daily evaluation, but we’re excited to let all of that play out.”
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