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Justin Fields will give Bears’ new GM a head start

Ryan Pace jettisoned the most productive pieces he inherited in 2015-16 — Cutler, Marshall, Bennett, Forte and Jeffery. The next GM will have Fields, and a few other building blocks.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) had a 73.2 passer rating as a rookie in 2021, with seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) had a 73.2 passer rating as a rookie in 2021, with seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

When Jerry Angelo was hired by the Bears in 2001 as the franchise’s first general manager since Jerry Vainisi was fired in 1987, he didn’t have to rebuild the team from the ground up.

On the contrary, Angelo literally inherited a playoff roster. Adding only blocking fullback Daimon Shelton, the Bears went 13-3 in 2001 with a roster totally stocked by former vice president of player personnel Mark Hatley.

And even though that success didn’t last, even when the Bears finally reached the Super Bowl in 2006, Angelo still had three foundation blocks from the Hatley era — middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, center Olin Kreutz and safety Mike Brown. All three made the Pro Bowl that season.

Ryan Pace wasn’t so lucky when he was hired in 2015 to replace Phil Emery. Not only did he have the usual roster rebuild that most new general managers face, but the most productive players he inherited were either liabilities, malcontents or past their prime.

Within two years, the foundation pieces that usually stabilize a new GM’s roster — the Urlachers, Kreutzes and Browns — were gone: quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte. When the Bears made the playoffs in 2018, the only starters Pace inherited were cornerback Kyle Fuller, left tackle Charles Leno and right guard Kyle Long.

The Bears’ new general manager who replaces Pace should have a better head start. Even on offense — where the Bears ranked 27th in points and 24th in yards in 2021 under Matt Nagy — quarterback Justin Fields alone gives the new GM and coach a building block that, in the right hands, could make the entire offensive roster better.

Fields struggled through most of his rookie season. In 12 games (10 starts) he had a 73.2 passer rating (seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions), which ranked 28th among the 31 quarterbacks who started 10 games or more in 2021.

But until proven otherwise, Nagy’s offense that seemed to diminish even its most productive parts, gets the majority of the blame for Fields’ difficulty. In fact, it’s Fields that makes the Bears’ job more attractive than it has been in previous coaching and GM changes.

At running back, the Bears have two building blocks in David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert. Montgomery’s production dipped slightly in 2021 — 225 carries for 849 yards (3.8 avg.) and seen touchdowns; 42 receptions for 301 yards and no touchdowns.

Herbert, a sixth-round draft pick in 2021, wasn’t quite a revelation, with 103 carries for 433 yards (4.2 avg.) and two touchdowns. But in two starts in place of the injured Montgomery, he had 19 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown against the Packers and 18 for 100 yards in a blowout loss to the Buccaneers.

Tight end Cole Kmet had a significant jump in production in his second season — 60 receptions for 612 yards but no touchdowns after having 28 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. He might end up closer to Kyle Rudolph than Travis Kelce or George Kittle, but he’s definitely a weapon to work with.

The offensive line figures to be the big unknown. Guards Cody Whitehair and James Daniels (who is a free agent) are solid starters. And rookie tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom are unproven but promising. The Bears need an upgrade at center, where Sam Mustipher was below starter quality in 2021.

Wide receiver Darnell Mooney also improved in his second season — 81 receptions for 1,055 yards (13.0 avg.) and four touchdowns after having 61 receptions for 631 yards (10.3 avg.) and four touchdowns as a rookie.

With unproven rookie Dazz Newsome the only other wide receiver signed for 2022, the new GM will have some work to do. But with the Fields and the right coach, it can sort itself out — as it did for the Rams in 2017 under Sean McVay, with newcomers Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins excelling with quarterback Jared Goff.

It’s often dangerous to rely on best-case scenarios like the Rams’ rise from 32nd in scoring to first in 2017 under McVay — though if Fields blossoms, anything is possible. But on offense, Nagy’s offense was seen as a bigger issue than Pace’s talent. The Bears’ next coaching staff could settle that debate.