It’s clear the Bears got it right when they picked quarterback Justin Fields in the first round of the draft this year. But in order to make that matter, they have to put the right pieces around him — especially in the prime window of Fields’ rookie contract over the next few seasons.
With the Bears now sitting at 3-6, the most underwater they’ve been during Matt Nagy’s time as coach, the rest of this season is essentially a runway to the future. The most important thing is Fields’ development, and next is setting up everything else he needs.
That includes chairman George McCaskey assessing whether Nagy is the right person to oversee that construction project beyond this season and whether general manager Ryan Pace can supply him with the right parts.
Set aside for a moment that since going 12-4 in his first season, Nagy is 19-22, with the Bears having scored the sixth-fewest points in the NFL. Also set aside that the Bears have one winning season and the league’s ninth-worst record since Pace was hired in 2015.
That’s a conversation for January. For now, it’s imperative that the Bears get a clear view of the handful of offensive players they’ve drafted over the last two years — all of whom are 24 or under and signed through at least 2023 — and whether they’re good enough to support a Fields-led push toward contention starting next season.
That blueprint begins with protecting Fields, something the Bears didn’t do for Mitch Trubisky. The team was confident in its interior offensive line — left guard Cody Whitehair, center Sam Mustipher and right guard James Daniels — but needed an overhaul at both tackle positions and chose Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom in this year’s second and fifth rounds, respectively.
The early reviews on Borom at right tackle are positive, but a three-game sample isn’t enough to make a determination on his viability. He needs to play every snap the rest of the season, regardless of Germain Ifedi’s health.
Jenkins is a total mystery. He has barely been on the field since falling from first-round status because teams were worried about his back problems. Not only was Pace willing to take the risk, but he also planned on moving Jenkins, who had always been a right tackle, to the left side.
Jenkins had back surgery in August, and there has been no indication from the Bears about when he’ll start practicing, other than current left tackle Jason Peters’ comment late last month that he thought it would be sometime in November. Peters has played well and proven to be a good pickup, but Jenkins needs to take over as soon as he’s cleared.
As far as Fields’ weapons, the Bears know what they have in Darnell Mooney, who’s at least a good No. 2 wide receiver. He leads the team with 36 catches for 450 yards and two touchdowns and is on pace to crush his totals from last season. Considering Allen Robinson is still in his prime at just 28, the Bears should strongly consider ponying up to keep this pair together.
Fields will need a go-to tight end, and Cole Kmet just surpassed his rookie yardage total from last season with six catches for 87 yards against the Steelers. Kmet isn’t quite a dynamic playmaker yet, but there has been steady progression. Also, as Fields improves, it’ll make Kmet better as well.
The Bears face a difficult decision at running back, where David Montgomery was very good in 2020 and got off to a great start this season before hurting his knee. He’s young and talented, but he’ll be looking for a contract extension this offseason — likely around $10 million per year. The Bears need to see whether they could save substantial money by molding sixth-round pick Khalil Herbert into a multipurpose back. The Bears owe Herbert a total of just $2.9 million over the next three seasons.
Of course, the Bears badly want the answer on all these young players to be “yes” because they’ll be extremely limited in the 2022 draft, with just two picks in the first four rounds.
If Fields is an elite quarterback, they’ll always have a shot, no matter what they have to pay him. The Seahawks, Buccaneers and Rams were among the best teams in the NFL last season despite their respective starting quarterbacks eating at least $25 million each in salary-cap space. The Chiefs were more than willing to take their chances by committing $503 million to Patrick Mahomes over 10 years.
But the optimal window to win big is during a great quarterback’s rookie contract, when teams can get an enormous discount at the most important and expensive position.
The Bears will never get a better value than they will the next four seasons, with Fields set to count $15.4 million from 2022 through ’24 and get a modest bump on his fifth-year option in ’25. Spotrac projects his 2022 hit to be 2% of the salary cap. Imagine how much easier that is to work with than the 17% of cap space for Russell Wilson that the Seahawks have to maneuver around this season.
There’s serious opportunity ahead for the Bears. And they need to start preparing for it now.