If you adhere to the “best player available” philosophy when it comes to the NFL draft, you have to live by the rule.
If Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles is in the hunt for the best player with a draft pick that will be no worse than No. 2 overall if they lose Sunday’s season finale against the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field, he’s going to evaluate the quarterback class in the same manner every other position is scrutinized.
That doesn’t mean drafting a quarterback has to be a goal two years after former GM Ryan Pace traded up to choose Justin Fields. But fully vetting available quarterbacks is essential to ensure Poles does not pass on the next Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Justin Herbert after a season in which the Bears passing offense has been historically bad. It’s possible to acknowledge the shortcomings of the cast around Fields while considering his talent, skill set and upside and have a conversation about what is available at the position.
The Bears have ruled Fields (hip strain) out and will start Nathan Peterman, a move that seemingly handicaps chances of upsetting the Vikings, who are a 7½-point favorites. A loss combined with a victory by the Houston Texans over the Indianapolis Colts would give the Bears the No. 1 pick for the first time since 1947.
Whatever selection the Bears wind up with, Poles and his staff have to examine the quarterback class headed by Kentucky’s Will Levis, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Alabama’s Bryce Young if the GM is in the “best available” camp.
Maybe the Bears would deny this because they want to publicly support Fields. But diligence is required to measure him against the current crop of quarterbacks versus the impact various defensive players, offensive linemen or wide receivers could add with the top pick.
The list of teams that do not need a QB conversation at the end of each season is limited, and those franchises are perennial playoff contenders. Five clubs enter the final week in contention for a No. 1 seed. Four of them — the Kansas City Chiefs (1st), Buffalo Bills (2), San Francisco 49ers (4), Philadelphia Eagles (6) — rank in the top six in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking for passing games. The Dallas Cowboys are the outlier at 13th.
DVOA stands for defense-adjusted value over average, and Football Outsiders breaks down every play of every game, adjusting based on the strength of opponent. For instance, a 15-yard pass on third-and-12 would be good against a bad defensive team such as the Detroit Lions. It would carry more weight against a top defense such as the Eagles. DVOA evaluates teams, units and players, and while no system is perfect, it has a lot of intricate elements. For instance, a 5-yard play on third-and-4 is more valuable than a 5-yard play on first-and-10.
What’s instructive is the bottom five in Football Outsiders’ table for passing offenses — the Colts, Texans, Bears, Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos — are the teams currently in line for a top-five pick in the draft. You throw the ball to score and win in the NFL.
A thorough review of the Bears’ struggles in the passing game will assign blame across the board. The Bears rank last in Football Outsiders’ pass-blocking metrics, a surprise to no one. A talent-challenged cast of wide receivers lacks a No. 1 target and has been hampered by injuries to Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool. All of those factors have limited Fields.
Fields enters Week 18 sixth in the league in rushing with 1,143 yards, missing an opportunity to eclipse Lamar Jackson’s NFL record of 1,206 rushing yards by a quarterback from his 2019 MVP season with the Baltimore Ravens. Fields has run for 65 first downs, tied for second-most in the league, and his four runs of 40 yards or more is tied for the most.
In routinely turning seemingly doomed plays into highlight-reel moments, he has mystified defenders while exhilarating the fan base. The offense had a four-game stretch beginning in late October when it averaged 31 points. Until a dip the last two games, the Bears were among the best offenses in the league on third down with Fields often turning nothing into … a first down. They rank 11th entering this weekend at 41.7%.
The hip strain is the second injury to sideline Fields. He missed the Week 12 game at the New York Jets with a separated left shoulder suffered on a designed run at Atlanta. Fields missed four games because of injuries as a rookie — two because of a hit he took to the ribs and two with an ankle sprain. It’s not sustainable to have a quarterback run this much — Fields has 160 carries — whether by design or because of protection issues.
Fields has been sacked a league-high 55 times and is coming off a season-high seven in Sunday’s 41-10 road loss to the Lions when he completed 7 of 21 passes for 75 yards. His season ends with 2,242 yards, 17 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and eight rushing scores.
In each of the last three seasons, a quarterback behind a porous offensive line has thrown for more than twice as many yards and double or nearly twice as many touchdowns.
- 2021: Joe Burrow, Bengals, 51 sacks, 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns
- 2020: Deshaun Watson, Texans, 49, 4,823, 33
- 2019: Jameis Winston, Buccaneers, 47, 5,109, 33
All of those quarterbacks had better wide receivers. Like Fields, they were regularly under duress. The Bears have the double whammy of being deficient on the line and at receiver.
When the Bears were 32nd in the league in passing in 2017 (3,085 yards), Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky were throwing to Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman — arguably a worse supporting cast on the outside than the one in place. Peterman needs to throw for 634 yards against the Vikings for this offense to reach that 2017 total with an extra game to get there.
Fields ranks 17th in the NFL in QBR, the formula ESPN created in 2011 in an effort to gauge every way a quarterback affects the game — middle of the pack and not a bad spot at the end of Year 2. He ranks 1st in QBR for running and is 30th in passing, ahead of only Baker Mayfield. Of course, you would expect him to perform better with an improved surrounding cast.
This is Fields’ third offense in three years when you count the system he played in at Ohio State in 2020 and a year under former coach Matt Nagy before the arrival of coordinator Luke Getsy. Not having to start over fresh this offseason would be a benefit.
If the Bears have a super-productive offseason, they won’t be picking at the top of the draft in 2024, when a QB class that might include USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye could be more enticing. Any time a team is near the top of the draft, it has to inspect the quarterbacks. Imagine if the New York Giants had chosen Allen with the No. 2 pick in 2018 as the heir apparent to Eli Manning instead of running back Saquon Barkley. Or if the Denver Broncos had tabbed Allen at No. 5 instead of taking defensive end Bradley Chubb.
What if the Bears had chosen a different oath in 2005, when they had the No. 4 pick and selected running back Cedric Benson? But why would they could they consider Aaron Rodgers when they had used a first-round pick on Rex Grossman two years prior? Injuries limited Grossman to six starts before the ‘05 season, so he was still an unknown talent. Fields has 25 starts, and many questions remain because of whom he has played with.
Poles needs to take an honest look at what Fields is and project what he can be with an upgraded roster. The Bears know the guy. They know his intelligence and work ethic and praise him for both. They need to assess if Fields can take them where they want to go or if another quarterback would give them a better chance.
Obviously chances are high the Bears believe in Fields’ upside and will work to build a much better team around him. They likely will reach the conclusion that Fields has to be evaluated with better protection and more pass-catching talent in a second season with Getsy in which there should be natural progression.
But it would be a mistake to discount a close look at potential quarterbacks when you’re at or near the top of the draft, especially if Poles pledges to be seeking the best player.
Duke Shelley, Vikings cornerback
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Duke Shelley, 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, is in his first season in Minnesota. The Vikings signed him to the practice squad in September after he was part of the Bears’ cuts to reach the 53-man roster. A sixth-round pick by the Bears in 2019 out of Kansas State, Shelley appeared in 30 games with six starts over three seasons for them.
Shelley has played in 10 games for the Vikings, making four starts and fitting into a defensive scheme run by coordinator Ed Donatell that is similar to what the Bears did with zone coverages. He has 27 tackles and seven breakups and has been playing regularly on the outside with injuries at the position.
“Based on his limited size and skill set, he’s a best fit as a nickel,” the scout said. “He’s got really good lower-body agility, excellent change of direction, feisty in coverage and good short-area speed. Where he’s lacking is vertical speed downfield or recovery speed, plus size at the point of attack. What you see with the Vikings is very split-safety-heavy coverages, quarters, Cover-2, Cover-6. It’s a good fit for him when he’s a rolled up cover in Cover-2 or he’s playing off in quarters where he can play off and stay on top of the route.
“Minnesota has been much more man-heavy. I don’t know why. Maybe Ed is trying to get something going because they have been poor on defense. They are trusting Duke outside. He’s competitive but he has limitations. You can attack him over the top, and Green Bay tried that last week with Christian Watson a couple times. Shelley made a great play down the field on him. He’s at his best when the ball is in front of him, though. I would worry teams would isolate him. I would pick on him. But he’s landed in a good spot and he’s done well for himself. Credit to him.”