On the morning of the NFL draft’s first round, the Bears had three plans for using their first pick at no. 20.
Plan A: Trade up and draft a quarterback who general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy believed could be a potential franchise player. Plan B: Consider trading up for another position of need, given their belief that elite talent would thin out in the late teens. Plan C: Stay put at 20.
Picking in the back half of the first round in a draft where premium picks were going for multiple first-rounders, Pace did not control the Bears’ fate. He spent Thursday morning making calls to teams with picks in the 7-to-12 range, gauging the parameters of potential trades up into that area of the draft: “Quarterback world,” as Pace called it.
One of his calls was to Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, a good friend. Gettleman might be open to trading the Giants’ no. 11 pick, but both teams would have to wait to see how the board was falling to know whether or not it would be worth it.
“There’s a lot of patience that comes with that,” Pace said in a press conference Thursday night. “To be honest, that can be difficult.”
Whoever said patience was a virtue probably never traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky. Four years ago, in the first round of the 2017 draft, Pace packaged three midround picks to move up just one spot, from no. 3 to no. 2, to take Trubisky. General managers only get so many throws at the quarterback dartboard, particularly when the arrows come at that kind of cost, but Pace was feeling bold.
“Once you have conviction on a guy, you’ve got to do it,” he said after drafting Trubisky. “You’ve got to be aggressive and do it.”
Pace used the word “aggressive” at least six times in his press conference with reporters that night in 2017. On Thursday, even after Pace traded with the Giants to move up to no. 11 to draft quarterback Justin Fields, the word du jour was “patience.” Pace’s boldness has not been completely tempered—he traded up for a quarterback during the draft, after all—but, for the most part, he spoke with less bravado about the move to acquire Fields than he did the Trubisky trade four years ago. Trubisky signed a one-year deal with the Bills this offseason after the Bears declined to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract last year. In four years in Chicago, he went 29-21 as a starter, made a Pro Bowl in 2018, and went to the playoffs twice, but he struggled with accuracy and was seen as a drag on one of the NFL’s best defenses. The pick looked even worse in hindsight because of two quarterbacks taken after Trubisky: Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Chicago was treading water with Trubisky and seemed fated to continue doing so; the two quarterbacks on the Bears’ roster as of Thursday morning, Nick Foles and Andy Dalton, who signed a one-year deal with Chicago worth at least $10 million in March, seemed unlikely to remove the team from the purgatorial middle class of the NFL. Each of these factors chipped away at Pace’s (and Nagy’s) job security and probably also at his pride. The Bears’ front office fell in love with a quarterback in the draft and got burned. Trubisky’s exit and their efforts to move on from him—Foles has been underwhelming and Dalton’s signing was met with muted enthusiasm—illustrate how rare it is to find a quarterback who generates excitement without incurring a high cost or assuming risk. Returning to the quarterback market means preparing to be hurt again.
Pace and Nagy were not sure they’d be able to get a quarterback in this draft, but last spring, Ohio State coach Ryan Day planted a seed about Fields that stuck with Nagy. Nagy and Day, who go back to the late ’90s, when they were both quarterbacks at Atlantic 10 schools, Delaware and New Hampshire, respectively, were catching up over the phone last March.
“Towards the end of it, we discussed Justin and he mentioned, ‘Man, this kid is a generational talent,’” Nagy said Saturday in a press conference after the draft was over. “And it just stuck with me: ‘Generational player.’”
Nagy told Pace about his conversation with Day. They both fell for him over the course of Ohio State’s season, though they had no idea whether they’d be in a position to get him or any quarterback.
The Bears sent offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and assistant personnel director Champ Kelly to Fields’s first Pro Day in March. Pace, Nagy, and player personnel director Josh Lucas went to the second two weeks later. They maxed out their allotted Zoom time on interviews with Fields. Neither Nagy or Pace would say where he ranked on their board relative to the four other quarterbacks chosen in the first round, but the Bears were clearly interested. There was some trepidation around the decision to move up for Fields—Pace was all in on Trubisky, and we know how that turned out—and more bracing for the potential disappointment of failing to pull it off. The possibility of Plan A not working—and a muted, dejected draft room Thursday night—was a genuine concern.
That’s where the patience had to come in. Patience not to get a room full of scouts and coaches too excited if it might set them up for disappointment. Patience reflecting the knowledge that drafting quarterbacks high doesn’t always work out. Patience to figure out whether there was even a move to be made. Part of the criticism of Trubisky’s selection was the sense that the Bears didn’t need to trade up one spot to get him. Pace said at the time that he’d gotten calls from teams looking to trade up for a quarterback and figured those teams were calling San Francisco about its no. 2 pick too. Even after the Bears traded up, no team moved for the 49ers’ no. 3 pick, which they used to select defensive end Solomon Thomas, whom they’d likely have taken at no. 2 as well. This time around, the Bears had less ability to force their way far up the board from no. 20, but the scar tissue from their last attempt remained.
It was also a different draft, one where teams had less information about how the board would fall. With no combine and limited attendance at pro days, there was less opportunity for information-gathering and groupthink to develop.
“I can’t remember it being this fascinating of a time especially that first round, not knowing who’s going to take what or do what,” Nagy said.
He waited out the first 90 minutes or so in the Bears’ draft room, watching Pace and director of football administration Joey Laine work the phones. When the Panthers at no. 8 and the Broncos at no. 9 passed on quarterbacks, it was on. Pace called Gettleman back. Draft rooms have a purposefully sterile quality, designed in part to dampen the emotional impact of franchise-altering swings that can take place over the course of seconds. The Vikings, who had the no. 14 pick, were interested in Fields, but the Bears were willing to go further. Pace and Gettleman agreed on the terms of the deal and Nagy called Fields, who was watching the draft with his family from his home in Georgia. There wasn’t any wild cheering in the draft room—at least not in any footage that’s been publicly released—but Pace stood up and there was lots of hugging.
“When you have a good feeling like that, you can feel the energy in the room, you can feel the energy from each person, and that’s really what it’s all about,” Nagy said.
Still, there were moments—more of them as the weekend went on and the draft drew complete—when it seemed like bits of bravado were creeping through. Speaking Thursday night Pace started gushing for just a moment when asked about Fields’s ability to withstand hits.
“This guy’s toughness on a scale of 1 to 10 is an 11. We just love that about him,” Pace said. “Oh, and by the way, he runs a 4.44.”
By the end of the weekend, when the draft was over and Fields had been introduced at Halas Hall (at a press conference in which a reporter used the word “tortured” to describe the Bears quarterback history), their excitement—and maybe a hint of self-satisfaction—was increasingly coming through.
“Just fired up about this whole thing,” Pace said.
He ran through a list of every Bears scout by name, thanking them for their work. Nagy half-joked that Pace hasn’t taken a day off in six months. They were both beaming.
Dalton, according to Nagy, remains the Bears’ starting quarterback. If Fields needs it, he can have far more than the four weeks Trubisky got his rookie season before becoming Chicago’s starter. Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City that year, 2017, where Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith for nearly the entire season. Nagy and Pace seemed like they were being careful not to draw too clear a comparison between Fields and Mahomes, but they both called that experience “the blueprint.”
“One of the best feelings in the world would be ‘Hey, we’re rolling, we’re playing really good football, we’re winning,’ and we’re looking over there and we’re seeing this guy and we all know—everyone in the building knows—that hey, we got a guy,” Pace said.
Patience in bringing Fields along, too, is a tacit admission of what went wrong with Trubisky. Chicago hired Nagy, an offense-first coach from the Andy Reid tree, in 2018 to support Trubisky and brought in a coaching staff stuffed with former quarterbacks including Lazor, John DeFilippo, Mark Helfrich, Dave Ragone, and Brad Childress. Pace invested in the offense by signing players like wide receivers Allen Robinson II and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton and drafting ones like running back David Montgomery and wide receiver Anthony Miller. Still, Trubisky was largely considered raw and overdrafted, was still asked to start early in his rookie season, and was then denied some consistency when the Bears cycled through three offensive coordinators, three play-callers, and two quarterbacks coaches in his four seasons. There’s a different feeling surrounding the drafting of Fields, both considering the cost and because, while Trubisky was viewed as a reach, Fields was seen by many draft experts as one of the best prospects in his class, who fell mostly due to questions about processing speed that weren’t necessarily fair. The Bears also seem determined not to force things along too quickly this time.
“When the time is right, I promise you, every single person will know, including Justin, when it’s the right time,” Nagy said. “That’s naturally how it happens.”
It sounded a little like he was daydreaming. The reality is that the Bears are all in on a rookie quarterback again, with all the hope, potential, and potential pain that comes with that.