Credit where it’s due: Pace nabbing Fields with 11th pick was a steal

QB had everything a team wants, so it was a pleasant surprise he was still on the board.

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Bears QB Justin Fields rushes for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field on Dec. 4, 2022.

Bears QB Justin Fields rushes for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field on Dec. 4, 2022.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Drafting football players is as much art as it is science. Especially with quarterbacks, specifically in the first round. Those players are supposed to transform your franchise for the better. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about how the Bears got here with Justin Fields.

During the 2021 NFL Draft, many of us were thinking: How in the world will Ryan Pace mess this up? The Bears stumbling into the playoffs a few months earlier was more of a fluke than by design. The team was stuck in neutral. Mitch Trubisky wasn’t the answer. That draft looked top-heavy. If you wanted a quarterback, you’d have to move up pretty high to land Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance or Justin Fields. With the Bears picking 20th, it looked impossible.

To Pace’s credit, he made it happen, but not before the draft process presented him a gift.

The draft process makes me cranky. I wouldn’t classify myself as a draft expert, but I watch a ton of college football. The first two picks in 2021 should have been easy, but the time between bowl games and the draft clouds the vision of football executives. The Jaguars and Jets needed quarterbacks. It was a lock that Trevor Lawrence was going to Jacksonville. It made all the sense in the world. Lawrence excelled at Clemson. He had taken on big, bad Alabama and walked away with a national championship.

Fields and Lawrence have been in a long battle on which quarterback is the best. If you were watching college football, it was easy to rate them 1A and 1B. If you wanted to give Lawrence the edge for winning a natty, go ahead.

Fields put on a legendary tough-guy performance in the CFP playoffs that year against Lawrence’s Clemson squad. He took a big hit that rattled his ribs and hip. He didn’t tap out! The Ohio State QB passed for 385 yards and six touchdowns. He was lauded for his skills, athleticism, toughness and smarts. Ohio State throttled Clemson 49-28 and reached the CFP championship game. It was his magnum opus.

After watching that performance, I remember thinking the team that gets that young man is going to be very lucky. I never thought it would be the Bears. I’m still vexed by how Fields was available at No. 11, where Pace had traded up to get him.

That winter, the draft world was abuzz with a video of Zach Wilson reversing out and throwing a 50-yard pass on the run. Impressive for sure, but it was in a controlled environment with no defenders or pass rush. This was practice. What we talkin’ bout . . . practice?! Fields had made this same play in the Sugar Bowl against one of the best defenses in the country. Tangible proof that Fields wouldn’t shrink in the biggest games, but it was seemingly ignored.

This season he has taken a big step in his development. Fields makes the amazing look easy, but there’s also a maturity about him that is equally impressive. He handled the coaching malpractice of Matt Nagy with the savvy of a 10-year veteran. When things got ugly for the Bears, he has accepted the blame. Working with his coaches, Fields has grown as a player and given Bears fans hope. He has set records and made more explosive plays in the last seven weeks than we’ve seen in full seasons. Last week, Pro Football Focus had him as the top-graded quarterback.

How in the world did this dude end up here? His college tape spoke volumes. If you were drawing up a quarterback, it would look like him. He has all the measurables. Intangibles? He had those, too. Remember, part of the reason Ohio State was even playing in that COVID-shortened season was because Fields lobbied the school, the Big Ten and the NCAA to find a safe way to make it happen.

Add it all up and you have an archetype for the person you want leading your team. Fields is right out of a Marvel movie. Yet teams kept passing on him. It’s their loss and a big win for every Bears fan.

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