INDIANAPOLIS — General manager Ryan Poles is looking ahead for the best ways to turn Justin Fields into the quarterback the Bears believe he can be, but he’s also looking backward.
He has spent part of his five weeks on the job studying what has helped second-year quarterbacks become successful.
The answer: A second-year QB needs a best friend to throw to when times get tough.
“It’s the dependability piece,” he said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Sometimes it can be a slot receiver; sometimes it can be a second tight end; it can be a big [receiver] outside.
“There’s just a relationship piece that they can go to that they trust, that they work with all offseason, that they get that connection with. . . . It’s almost like they get battled out with that guy. I think that’s important.”
In 2021, Bengals second-year quarterback Joe Burrow rode Ja’Marr Chase, his former LSU teammate, to the best rookie receiving season ever. He had 81 catches for 1,455 yards. Dolphins second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa leaned on wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, also a former college teammate, who set the NFL’s rookie record with 104 catches.
Fields needs a talent infusion via the draft or free agency. Poles was effusive in his praise for third-year wide receiver Darnell Mooney — he called him a bright spot on the roster — but it’s clear the Bears need more. They have only one other wide receiver under contract for 2022 who caught a pass last year: 2021 rookie Dazz Newsome.
When Poles sat down to watch the playoffs and the Super Bowl, he knew what separated those rosters from his.
“Playmakers stood out to me,” he said. “We gotta get playmakers.”
But how? Packers star wide receiver Davante Adams figures to get an extension — or the franchise tag — this month. The Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin, the Cowboys’ Michael Gallup and the Rams’ Odell Beckham Jr. are recovering from torn anterior cruciate ligaments. And the Bears’ own Allen Robinson figures to enter free agency later this month after posting his worst season with the franchise.
The next tier of wide receivers available via free agency later this month includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Christian Kirk and D.J. Chark. While Poles has talked openly of finding motivated players in the second and third tiers of free agency, those types of players might not represent real upgrades over Fields’ receiving group from 2021.
Instead, Poles might have to spend.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said this will be “a great wide receiver draft,” but the Bears won’t find the next Chase or Waddle in the second or third round.
“You want explosive athletic ability there that can produce chunk plays,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “So if you throw a screen, you want a guy that can take it and go for 15 [yards] or all the way. The controlled passing game is just that, but the athletes are the guys that make you miss.”
Like his predecessor, Ryan Pace, Poles has been impressed by how seriously Fields takes the responsibility of playing quarterback.
“There’s a high ceiling with him — it’s just putting him in position to succeed and seeing how high that ceiling is,” he said.
Having Fields on a rookie contract gives the Bears financial flexibility to spend on supporting players, from offensive linemen to wide receivers to tight ends. Doing just that is what will put him in position to succeed.
“I think a lot of the really good quarterbacks, especially the young ones, when things go crazy, who can they go to that they trust and is dependable and can make plays?” Poles said. “We’re just trying to keep an eye on them, as well.”