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How Will the Bears Handle Their Franchise-Defining Moment?

Chicago has the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft. The Bears also have an ascending passer in Justin Fields. What they do next will determine the future of the team for years to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Chicago Bears have it. The first pick in a draft with multiple top quarterback prospects. This is the dream.

The prize this pick would seem to offer Chicago: USC’s Caleb Williams. Six-foot-1, 215 pounds. Heisman winner. Ninety-three total touchdowns and 10 picks in the past two seasons. Runs like Jalen Hurts, throws like the guy playing in Kansas City who wears no. 15 (only we’re not allowed to make that comparison). Talent for days and days.

And if not Williams, then Drake Maye, the young man out of North Carolina. Six-four, 230 pounds. Prototypical. Arm like a javelin thrower. Precision of a surgeon. Aggressiveness of a big-game hunter. You ever watch Justin Herbert and wonder when they’re gonna make another one of those? They just did.

Chicago’s franchise-saving quarterback is just around the corner, and here’s the real kicker: They didn’t even earn the first pick. At least, not the way the first pick is typically earned: with badness. That’s how they earned last season’s no. 1 pick, which they traded to the Panthers. In return, the Bears got DJ Moore, the star receiver they’ve needed for years; a franchise right tackle in Darnell Wright; and the Panthers’ future first-round pick. The best thing a future first-round pick can become is the first pick, and that’s exactly what the Bears got. What a fleecing. What a win.

Usually a bad team gets the first pick—but this year, a good team gets it. And I mean that: a good team. By weighted DVOA, which values recent games over games long past, the Bears are seventh in the league. The Bears have won four of their past five, and in the game they lost against Cleveland, they were leading 17-7 in the fourth quarter.

With the additions of Moore and midseason trade acquisition Montez Sweat, the Bears have legit star talent in the building; with the development of Jaquan Brisker, Jaylon Johnson, and Teven Jenkins, their homegrown talent is delivering as well. It’s a little too late for a playoff push, but make no bones about it: Chicago is playing good football. And now, that good football team gets to drop a great rookie quarterback prospect onto the roster and take the leap into NFC North contention.

There is just one problem. Its name is Justin Fields. Recently, the problem has looked like this.

Also like this.

And like this.

Oh, and this one didn’t even show up on the stat sheet.

So you understand the problem, right? Having the first draft pick in a loaded quarterback class is incredible—but those are birds in the bush. There’s a bird in the hand in Justin Fields, and he’s looking better now than he has at any point in his career.

The funny thing about Fields’s development is that it has nothing to do with those plays. Fields’s splash plays have been tantalizing since the day he entered the league—there has never been a question of whether Fields’s physical tool kit was sufficient for a starting NFL quarterback. In fact, Fields’s blend of explosiveness, size, and arm talent is enough to make him a legitimately effective starting quarterback.

The issue for Fields has always been risk management. Fields’s displays of physical prowess often saved the Bears offense from a negative play, but they came too few and far between—and, in his pursuit of explosive runs or scramble drill passes, he invited far too many sacks.

In his rookie season, Fields was worst in the league in sack rate—he took a sack on one out of every nine dropbacks, which is very rough. The following season? He was worst in the league again, with a sack on one of every seven dropbacks! An astonishing number.

This season? He’s third from the bottom, with a sack in one of every 10 dropbacks—but recently, that number has been improving.

Fields’s sack rate reflects his comfort level in the offense. He knows his outlets when pressured—where the hot reads and checkdowns are, where the best escape path will be. But it also reflects that the offense has improved around him: receivers are more likely to get open when Fields scrambles, and they’ve earned his trust, so he’s more likely to throw to them when pressured than he is to try to break a tackle and run. Just as Fields’s sack rate has gone down this season, so has his scramble rate: He’s playing within the offense more now than he ever has.

Much of the credit for Fields’s improvement belongs to the improvement of the players around him. This ability was always latent within Fields, but on offenses in which receivers regularly ran incorrect routes and linemen regularly blew protections, he was never comfortable. On those few plays when he did have a clean checkdown opportunity or a receiver did win a one-on-one, Fields was hesitant and uncertain. As the offense has stabilized, Fields has learned to trust it.

But while the offensive line is better, it’s important to note that while Fields’s sack rate is down this year, his pressure rate is up. His diminished sack and scramble rate isn’t the result of an improved offensive line erasing the pressures that long flummoxed him. It is the result of an improving, maturing quarterback.

With the team’s recent success, Fields’s ever-present hero plays still showing up, and his drive-ending mistakes diminishing, it is tempting to forecast a rosy progression for the young quarterback. After he suffered a couple of years behind a patchwork offensive line, was throwing to substandard receivers, and was at the mercy of poor offensive coaching, Fields is finally experiencing the eureka moment that most young quarterbacks enjoy earlier in their careers. He’s looking like what he was supposed to look like. The light bulb is turning on.

If Fields is rounding into form, then he has something that Williams, Maye, and any other 2024 rookie quarterback cannot claim: He can definitely and clearly hang at the NFL level. He is, at worst, a starting quarterback. And what if he keeps getting better? What if another year with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and Moore and tight end Cole Kmet and this offensive line … makes him get even better? Are you willing to give that up for a (potentially more exciting) bird in the bush?

And what would happen if the Bears did indeed keep Fields? Suddenly, that no. 1 draft pick becomes a bounty not for the Bears, but for some other team willing to pay a premium price. As Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reported this week, league executives believe Chicago could “net more than it did in the Panthers trade” from a team picking in the no. 2 to no. 5 range in this year’s draft: “The price to get to no. 1 could be two future first-rounders on top of this year’s pick, along with a variation of a Day 2 pick and/or a premium veteran player on a manageable contract.”

That means the Bears could get more future picks, another veteran player to shore up the roster—something the pro scouting department in Chicago has done extremely well lately, with the acquisitions of Sweat, Moore, and linebacker T.J. Edwards—and still pick near the top of this year’s draft. Marvin Harrison Jr., anyone?

It’s such an enticing proposition. But it would also be a mistake—one I don’t think the Bears are going to make.

We haven’t yet touched on the most significant factor in the Bears’ quarterback decision: the contracts.

Fields is approaching the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. He’ll hit the cap for $6 million in 2024, and should the Bears pick up his fifth-year option, he’ll hit the cap for another $23.3 million in the 2025 season.

Now, that sounds very cheap, doesn’t it? The going rate for veteran quarterbacks on the open market regularly produces cap hits of $35 million and greater, and that number is only going to rise.

But that’s the point: quarterbacks on rookie contracts are unbelievably underpaid relative to veterans. Fields costs a fraction of the money he would make on the open market tomorrow. When you have a good young quarterback on a rookie deal, you have the single greatest competitive advantage in the modern NFL. Just look at the contracts the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers have recently doled out; even the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars, who spent no. 1 picks on quarterbacks, have been able to spend wildly over the past few seasons.

Fields is that cheap for the next two seasons; a rookie would be cheap for the next five seasons. Those additional three years are so valuable, they dwarf the relative value of Fields’s known caliber of play. Consider it this way: Let’s say the Bears trade Fields to another team, and over the following three years, he plays well. He’s a top-12 to top-18 quarterback. And the Bears rookie takes some time to settle in—he’s bad at first, but ends up a top-12 or top-18 quarterback by the end of his second season. In that universe, the Bears still made the right call because the difference in Fields’s price relative to the rookie’s price is so great.

That isn’t even factoring in the value the Bears can get from a Fields trade alone. After Sam Darnold netted second-, fourth-, and sixth-round selections when he went from the Jets to the Panthers, it is reasonable that Fields—who has been better than Darnold at every turn of their respective careers—would net at least that. In the same way that Fields’s improved play makes the Bears’ decision a little harder, it also makes the trade package they’d get back for him a little richer.

Of course, the no. 1 draft pick can totally bust—nobody knows that better than the Bears, who own the top pick in 2024 because of how poorly 2023 top pick Bryce Young has played for the Panthers. Trading Fields away for a rookie who doesn’t work out would be a franchise-crippling move. But you can never really avoid big risks at the quarterback position. Even if you keep Fields, you’re taking on risk. There’s a risk that he’ll incur major injury (something that is a little more likely with Fields, who has gotten injured a lot in his short career, than with the average quarterback). There’s also a risk that his play will deteriorate (look at Carson Wentz as a recent example of a quarterback who started well but regressed badly). The idea of escaping risk at quarterback is a fallacy.

So if risk will be present, it’s best to offset that risk with maximal reward: which brings us back to the quarterback selected with the first pick. There might be a future top-10, top-five quarterback awaiting the lucky team at the top of this draft—heck, there might be two. Even though Fields has much more room for development than the average third-year quarterback, his ceiling is still lower than that of younger, fresher unknowns like Williams and Maye. The benefit of hitting on a high-tail outcome for Fields is moderate: You’ve got a fringe top-10 quarterback on a second contract. The benefit of hitting on a high-tail outcome with Williams or Maye is enormous: a C.J. Stroud–, Joe Burrow–, Jalen Hurts–like impact on a franchise. A swift and unstoppable catapult into contention.

Now, if you keep Fields and trade the first pick, you can get some wildly good first-round picks—and, with them, some wildly good players. That trade haul is certainly enticing. But with the picks, you’d be hoping to get impact players; with the money you save from a rookie quarterback relative to Fields, you can get impact players, as well. The impact players from picks are cheaper but come with more risk, as all draft picks do. Spending money on free agents is more expensive, but way safer. Of course, the same comparative value of a rookie quarterback and a vet quarterback is present in Ja’Marr Chase on his deal relative to A.J. Brown on his deal—but the value is far less at any other position relative to quarterback.

So while the Fields decision looks harder as his play improves, the reality is that it is too little, too late to move the Bears off the first selection. There are a lot of universes in which the conversation becomes legitimately tough. Say Fields never hurt his thumb and started to show this improvement in Week 6 instead of Week 11. Say the Panthers weren’t this bad, and the Bears had the fifth pick instead of the first pick. Then we could talk. A month of good Fields play cannot budge the Bears off Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. It simply can’t.

Which brings us to the second, and actual, problem for the Bears: Should they draft Williams or Maye?

The Bears, like all teams picking a potential franchise quarterback, have to get that pick right. General managers aren’t graded on the wisdom of the decisions they made when they made them. It’s a results business: make championship moves, or make room for the next guy. When general manager Ryan Poles puts his chips on Williams or Maye this April, there will be no benefit to him or to the Bears if the other guy ends up becoming the guy that justifies trading Fields away.

But unlike most teams, the Bears have a guy in the building who might be a franchise quarterback—and they’ll likely have to let him go. Many analytics acolytes will endorse keeping Fields and drafting a rookie quarterback—why make only one dice roll at the most valuable position on the field when you could make two? And there is some wisdom to that. But there’s also a second edge to that sword: managing a locker room in which all the veterans are behind the guy who’s started for the past three years, while the coaching staff and front office are focused on developing the cheaper, younger, shinier, handpicked option. A rift forms, and chasms are tough to mend in the league.

So here it comes for Chicago: the franchise-defining moment. The Bears have navigated well to this moment, and now they face the crossroads. I think their decision is clear, but they still have to make it, with commitment and oneness of mind. And once they go down the path of the rookie, they can’t misstep. Like I said at the top: The Bears have the dream. Full control over a draft loaded with QB talent. But in the NFL, even dreams require lots of hard work, almost unswallowable amounts of risk, and a little dumb luck, too.