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Emma’s Tailgater: Is Justin Fields proving place as Bears’ franchise quarterback?

2 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Before walking out of Soldier Field on Christmas Eve, Justin Fields was stopped next to his locker. First came offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, then quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko, both extending their arms for a handshake and hug.

Fields had just led the Bears to their third victory in four games over the last month, and that winning feeling is one to savor for these players and coaches. Now at the end of Fields’ third NFL season – and second year with this Matt Eberflus-led coaching staff – the Bears are beginning to find success thanks to their 24-year-old quarterback.

With key decisions looming for the Bears this pivotal offseason, Fields has made them difficult. But has he done enough to deserve Chicago’s investment as its franchise quarterback?

“That’s for the higher-ups,” said top target DJ Moore, pointing to general manager Ryan Poles and his brass. “But my two cents is I still don’t see why he’s not the quarterback for us next year.”

Two games remain for the Bears (6-9) in this regular season, next with the Falcons (7-8) at Soldier Field on Sunday. After these two contests, critical calls must be made at Halas Hall.

Poles must lead the Bears through franchise-altering decisions as soon as early January, when he first must elect whether Eberflus and his staff should be retained for a third year. The verdict on Fields’ future likely won’t come until late February or early March, as the Bears prepare to either build around him or select his replacement.

The Bears are in line to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft thanks to the Panthers (2-13), who sent a haul to Chicago last March in exchange for the first pick in the 2023 draft. Selecting at the top of the draft is a rare opportunity. Poles could own that slot two years in a row.

That would lead Poles to evaluate Fields’ future against those of Caleb Williams (USC) or Drake Maye (North Carolina).

Fields has heard all the speculation involving his uncertain future in Chicago. He seems to be at peace with what’s to come.

“I mean, I’ve got too much to focus on today to worry about tomorrow,” Fields said.

“Whatever happens happens. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Fields has thrown for 2,146 yards, 15 touchdowns and 9 interceptions over 11 games this season, averaging 248.3 yards per contest between his right arm and legs.

With the arrival of Moore and a stronger supporting cast, Fields has made considerable strides as a passer. The Bears are finally finding what Fields’ full potential looks like.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of growth,” said Getsy, who began working with Fields in early 2022. “I mean, just in this season alone, how far he’s come ― taking care of the football, being in control of the game.

“His ability to progress is better, his footwork is better. I think the protection part of it is outstanding, the completion percentage part of it is good, he’s throwing the ball accurately, I think the extended play part of it is a lot of fun to see him progress through that. So, there’s been a lot of areas.”

Fields has proven himself as a starter in this league, which was not certain prior to this season. But Poles and the Bears could still believe there’s higher upside with a prized prospect like Williams. A trade of Fields could land Chicago a first-round pick if Poles plays his cards right. At the very least, he would command a second-round selection and more.

But the Bears may simply believe Fields is a rising star, and that further investments will reveal that. Poles might be inclined to either deal the first overall pick once again, landing another blockbuster package in return. Or he could simply stand pat with the top selection and land dynamic wide receiver prospect Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State), who is seen as a can’t-miss star arriving into the league.

Suddenly, the Bears would boast one of the top cores of playmakers on offense for Fields.

Like Fields himself, those players inside the Bears’ locker room have felt the uncertainty surrounding their team’s future. They are making the case for Fields to stay put as their starter.

“I’ve always kind of been a fan on the outside looking in,” said veteran pass rusher Montez Sweat. “Even when we were mapped out to play them, Justin is a guy you don’t want to go against. But I really like the way he handles his business. He comes in here, he’s the first one out on the field, sometimes the last one to leave out the building. He’s a hard worker, puts his head down, doesn’t really listen to the outside noise. And yeah, he’s pretty (expletive) talented, too. So, yeah, I love playing with him.”

As the Bears have played through this challenging season, Poles and his brass have been preparing for this looming decision at quarterback. Scouts have been dispatched across the country to evaluate each quarterback prospect and form thorough opinions.

Poles is scheduled to address reporters at the conclusion of this regular season and will face questions on Fields’ future. Like last January, he will likely again state that the Bears would have to be “absolutely blown away” to select a quarterback and replace Fields. This time around, that may very well be the case.

Fields is leaving a lasting impression in Chicago as a quarterback who can lead victories. But the Bears must decide whether that’s enough to believe in moving forward.

Wright path

Less than three weeks before the first round of the NFL Draft was set to begin, general manager Ryan Poles traveled to Knoxville with offensive line coach Chris Morgan to conduct a workout with coveted Tennessee tackle prospect Darnell Wright.

The Bears wanted to test Wright in that grueling workout and see how he would respond. They put Wright through strenuous work that challenged not only his talent and technique, but also his endurance. They were sold.

Wright was selected by the Bears with the 10th overall pick in the draft, then stepped in as the starter at right tackle for his first day of rookie minicamp. He never relinquished that role, and the Bears have come to find they have a franchise player in Wright.

“I think he’s a really good football player right now,” said Morgan as he assessed Wright’s season to this point. “And I think he’s going to be a great football player.

“The sky’s the limit. If he stays hungry, which I think he will because I think he’s the ultimate competitor deep down, I think he’s got the chance to be special. And I’ve been around a lot of good ones. He’s got a chance to be that.”

Morgan has coached elite offensive linemen like 10-time Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams during the course of his career as an assistant coach.

The 22-year-old Wright has started all 15 games for the Bears at right tackle and is the team’s lone player to have served on every snap from his side of the football.

“He can do anything we ask,” Morgan said. “When he does it, he does it right. He’s dominant at times. That consistency piece, it’s the same thing. In pro football, you have to be locked in for 70, 80, 62 plays. Whatever the number is that day, you got to be locked in for every one of those.

“It’s hard to be consistent all the time, and that’s what an offensive lineman has to do. If he grades out 90%, the two plays out of 72 or the two plays out of 62, everybody is going to notice it. It’s just that being locked in, being wired in from start to finish, it’s a big deal at this level. That’s what it’s hard for a lot of rookies to be so dominant in all the time.

“But he’s big enough, strong enough, smart enough, athletic enough to where he can come in as a rookie and you see he can play, and play well.”

‘Only one Devin Hester’

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Devin Hester must rely on his patience once more.

So many times during his remarkable career, Hester would haul in a kickoff or punt, look downfield and then wait – identifying coverages, searching for that hole and taking off. If there was a skill of Hester’s more special than his speed, it was his patience.

Hester has been forced to wait twice already as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with his hopes of being immortalized in Canton coming up short. On Wednesday night, he was once again named a finalist as a member of the 2024 class. Maybe it will come for Hester on his third time.

Over the last two years, Hester has been held out of the Hall of Fame because of indifference from voters over the importance of special teams and the return game. But those who know it best recognize Hester’s greatness.

There will never be another player like Hester.

“I think God made only one Devin Hester,” said Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower. “I don’t think we’ll ever see another player like Devin Hester again. I know I probably won’t in my time. Some people may. Maybe our kids’ kids or somebody will, but the impact that he’s had on the game and the way he changed the game.

“When you really go back and study it, it’s unbelievable. And I don’t ever think you’ll see a player change their position the way he changed his position in the return game.”

Hester is the NFL’s all-time leader in return touchdowns with 20 over 11 seasons, including 14 punt return touchdowns. He was selected by the Bears in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft and played eight seasons for Chicago.

Hester recorded 19 of his record 20 return touchdowns with the Bears.

“What made Devin special is he was in kickoff return, he was punt return, he returned field goal returns on monster kicks,” Hightower said. “He’s off-the-charts great. Just greatness. When you talk about greatness. And I think every special teams coach in the NFL feels that way. He made it so you could not not watch fourth down. You had to watch it.”

Former Bears pass rushers Julius Peppers and Jared Allen were also selected among the 15 modern-era finalists for the Hall of Fame, while Steve ‘Mongo’ McMichael is a finalist for the senior ballot.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame will unveil its 2024 class on Feb. 8 in Las Vegas as part of Super Bowl weekend.

No. 1 pick watch

The Bears are close to securing the first overall pick in the NFL Draft for a second straight year, this thanks to the struggling Panthers.

The Panthers (2-13) can effectively grant the Bears the No. 1 pick with a loss to the Jaguars (8-7) on Sunday in Jacksonville. The Cardinals (3-12) are one game behind the Panthers, though Carolina (.522) owns the tiebreaker of a lower strength-of-record over Arizona (.561). The Commanders (4-11) and Patriots (4-11) are each two games back of the first pick.

The Bears boast a 95.9% chance of landing the top pick, according to ESPN Football Power Index metrics. Chicago’s own selection currently sits at No. 8 overall and has an 80.2% chance of landing within the top 10 of the draft, according to ESPN FPI.

The Bears landed the Panthers’ top pick in the draft as part of their blockbuster trade involving the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft made last March. Chicago also received the No. 9 overall pick in 2023, a pair of second-round picks and star wide receiver DJ Moore in the haul.

Good Guy

The Good Guy Award is presented across the NFL to a player with each team who best accommodates the local media. But in Chicago, there’s added importance to this award.

Following the passing of colleague and friend Jeff Dickerson two years ago Thursday, the award was renamed locally in his honor. It was only fitting for the ultimate good guy.

Veteran safety Eddie Jackson was recognized as the Jeff Dickerson Good Guy Award winner on Thursday at Halas Hall, as the life and legacy of ‘JD’ was celebrated by his peers. George and Sandy Dickerson, Jeff’s parents, were present as the award was given to Jackson.

“You guys did a fine job raising him,” Jackson said to George and Sandy.

Injury report

WR Darnell Mooney (concussion) — After self-reporting symptoms this week, Mooney is in the concussion protocol.

TE Cole Kmet (knee) — The Bears want to see how Kmet responds to treatment this week. He has never missed a game over parts of four seasons.

C Lucas Patrick (knee) — The Bears would be forced to shuffle their offensive line if Patrick is unable to play. Perhaps Doug Kramer is the next man up.

Quote to note

“Honestly, if you’ve been in the organization long enough, you’re used to it by now. I mean, just keep your head down, continue to work and continue to just try to get better week by week.”
—Cornerback Jaylon Johnson, on uncertainty looming over the Bears

Emma’s Prediction (10-5): Bears 22, Falcons 11

In honor of the late Jeff Dickerson, who enjoyed a good Scorigami score pick, let’s go with a unique score for Sunday.

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